Friday, August 20, 2010

Watts Towers

Most visitors to Los Angeles want to see the Hollywood sign or Grauman's Chinese Theater. Me, I wanted to see the Watts Towers.


Built between 1921 and 1954, the tallest one is about five stories. At a distance like this, they seem interesting but kind of grim, as if they were blackened rebar, left over from a series of torched minarets.

But as you get closer, the details start to appear:


And the colors become visible...


And then you realize how much there is to see.


The Towers were built by an Italian immigrant named Simon Rodia. He worked as a tile setter, and starting at the age of 42, spent 34 years building and decorating the Towers in the yard outside the small house where he lived alone.


Rodia built and left, built and left -- first his family with three children, whom he never saw again after he and his wife divorced in 1919 -- then the Towers themselves. In 1954 he gave his house and the Towers to a neighbor, and moved into a boarding house near his sister in northern California. He never saw his life's work again, but talked about it to anyone who would listen until he died in 1965 at the age of 86.


Within three years of Rodia's departure, his house had burned and the Towers had been vandalized. The city of Los Angeles ordered the house razed and the Towers demolished, but because they couldn't find the current owner, nothing happened.


Then in 1959, William Cartwright and Nicholas King, a film editor and an actor, visited the Towers and began working to save them. They bought the site and a citizens' committee was formed. (The L.A. Times has a nice article marking the 50th anniversary of the Towers' rebirth.)


By 1963 the Towers had been designated a Historic Cultural Monument.

In building the Towers, Rodia used...


...tools, faucet heads, gears, and heat grates to make impressions in concrete...


...broken china and 11,000 pottery shards...


...over 10,000 seashells...


...15,000 pieces of ceramic tile...


...and 6,000 pieces of broken glass (note the green bottle fragments near the top).

Over 100,000 fragments in all.


When Rodia finished, he named his work Nuestro Pueblo, which means Our Village in Italian.

The Towers are open for tours Friday through Sunday from 11:00 to 3:00. We, of course, managed to visit on a Thursday so we couldn't go inside the structure. It makes me sad that a fence is needed to protect something that is so obviously precious.

(All facts in this text are drawn from the wonderful explanatory panels that hang on the fence around the Watts Towers.)

1 comment:

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

Fascinating! I remember hearing about these but I'd long forgotten them.