Watts Towers

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Watts Towers of Simon Rodia
Simon Rodia State Historic Park
Watts Towers
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Location1765 E. 107th Street, Los Angeles, California 90002
Coordinates 33°56′19.46″N118°14′27.77″W / 33.9387389°N 118.2410472°W / 33.9387389; -118.2410472 Coordinates: 33°56′19.46″N118°14′27.77″W / 33.9387389°N 118.2410472°W / 33.9387389; -118.2410472
Architect Sabato Rodia
NRHP reference # 77000297
CHISL #993
Significant dates
Added to NRHPApril 13, 1977 [1]
Designated NHLDecember 14, 1990 [2]
Designated CHISLAugust 17, 1990 [3]
Designated LAHCMMarch 1, 1963 [4]

The Watts Towers, Towers of Simon Rodia, or Nuestro Pueblo ("our town" in Spanish) are a collection of 17 interconnected sculptural towers, architectural structures, and individual sculptural features and mosaics within the site of the artist's original residential property in Watts, Los Angeles. The entire site of towers, structures, sculptures, pavement and walls were designed and built solely by Sabato ("Simon") Rodia (1879–1965), an Italian immigrant construction worker and tile mason, over a period of 33 years from 1921 to 1954. The tallest of the towers is 99.5 feet (30.3 m). The work is an example of outsider art (or Art Brut) and Italian-American naïve art. [2] [5]

Watts, Los Angeles Neighborhood of Los Angeles in California, United States

Watts is a neighborhood in southern Los Angeles, California. It is located within the South Los Angeles region, bordering the cities of Lynwood and South Gate to the east and southeast, respectively, and the unincorporated community of Willowbrook to the south.

Outsider art Art created outside the boundaries of official culture by those untrained in the arts

Outsider art is art by self-taught or naïve art makers. Typically, those labeled as outsider artists have little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions. In many cases, their work is discovered only after their deaths. Often, outsider art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds.

Naïve art art movement

Naïve art is usually defined as visual art that is created by a person who lacks the formal education and training that a professional artist undergoes. When this aesthetic is emulated by a trained artist, the result is sometimes called primitivism, pseudo-naïve art, or faux naïve art.


The Watts Towers were designated a National Historic Landmark and a California Historical Landmark in 1990. [2] [3] They are also a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, and one of nine folk art sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places in Los Angeles. The Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park encompasses the Watts Towers site.

National Historic Landmark formal designation assigned by the United States federal government to historic buildings and sites in the United States

A National Historic Landmark (NHL) is a building, district, object, site, or structure that is officially recognized by the United States government for its outstanding historical significance. Only some 2,500 of over 90,000 places (~3%) listed on the country's National Register of Historic Places, are recognized as National Historic Landmarks.

California Historical Landmark Buildings, structures, sites, or places in California determined to have historical significance

A California Historical Landmark (CHL) is a building, structure, site, or place in California that has been determined to have statewide historical landmark significance.

Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monuments are sites in Los Angeles, California, which have been designated by the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission as worthy of preservation based on architectural, historic and cultural criteria.

The Watts Towers are one half mile from the 103rd Street/Watts Towers station of the Los Angeles Metro Blue Line.

103rd Street/Watts Towers station Los Angeles Metro Rail station

103rd Street/Watts Towers is an at grade light rail station on the Los Angeles County Metro Blue Line.

Blue Line (Los Angeles Metro) Metro line from Los Angeles to Long Beach

The Blue Line is a 22.0-mile (35.4 km) light rail line running north-south between Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, passing through Downtown Los Angeles, South Los Angeles, Watts, Willowbrook, Compton, Rancho Dominguez and Long Beach in Los Angeles County. It is one of six lines in the Metro Rail system. Opened in 1990, it is the system's oldest and third busiest line with an estimated 22.38 million boardings per year as of December 2017. It is operated by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Design and construction

Rodia spent 33 years building the towers on a small piece of land he had purchased shortly after moving to Watts in 1917. Before moving to the L.A. suburb, he had lived in Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area, doing odd jobs. Divorced, estranged from his children, he came to Watts with little money or future. "I was one of the bad men in the United States," he recalled. "I was drunk all the time, always drinking." [6]

He was forty-two, barely literate, unskilled beyond the basic tasks from a life of labor. To this day no one is sure why, but in 1921 he began to build "something big." "You have to be either good good or bad bad to be remembered," he often said. "You gotta do somethin' they never got 'em in the world." [6] He began by digging a foundation, then made the rest up as he went along.

The sculptures' armatures are constructed from steel rebar and Rodia's own concoction of a type of concrete, wrapped with wire mesh. The main supports are embedded with pieces of porcelain, tile, and glass. They are decorated with found objects, including bottles, ceramic tiles, seashells, figurines, mirrors, and much more. Rodia called the Towers "Nuestro Pueblo" ("our town" in Spanish). He built them with no special equipment or predetermined design, working alone with hand tools. Neighborhood children brought pieces of broken pottery to Rodia, and he also used damaged pieces from the Malibu Pottery and CALCO (California Clay Products Company). Green glass includes recognizable soft drink bottles from the 1930s through 1950s, some still bearing the former logos of 7 Up, Squirt, Bubble Up, and Canada Dry; blue glass appears to be from milk of magnesia bottles.

Steel alloy made by combining iron and other elements

Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, and sometimes other elements. Because of its high tensile strength and low cost, it is a major component used in buildings, infrastructure, tools, ships, automobiles, machines, appliances, and weapons.

Rebar steel bar or mesh used within concrete

Rebar, known when massed as reinforcing steel or reinforcement steel, is a steel bar or mesh of steel wires used as a tension device in reinforced concrete and reinforced masonry structures to strengthen and aid the concrete under tension. Concrete is strong under compression, but has weak tensile strength. Rebar significantly increases the tensile strength of the structure. Rebar's surface is often deformed to promote a better bond with the concrete.

Porcelain ceramic material

Porcelain is a ceramic material made by heating materials, generally including kaolin, in a kiln to temperatures between 1,200 and 1,400 °C. The toughness, strength, and translucence of porcelain, relative to other types of pottery, arises mainly from vitrification and the formation of the mineral mullite within the body at these high temperatures. Though definitions vary, porcelain can be divided into three main categories: hard-paste, soft-paste and bone china. The category that an object belongs to depends on the composition of the paste used to make the body of the porcelain object and the firing conditions.

Rodia bent much of the Towers' framework from scrap rebar, using nearby railroad tracks as a makeshift vise. Other items came from alongside the Pacific Electric Railway right-of-way between Watts and Wilmington. Rodia often walked the right-of-way all the way to Wilmington in search of material, a distance of nearly 20 miles (32 km).

In the summer of 1954, Rodia suffered a mild stroke. Shortly after the stroke, he fell off a tower. The fall was from a low height but at 75, he sensed the end. In 1955, Rodia quitclaimed his property to a neighbor and left, reportedly tired of battling with the City of Los Angeles for permits, and because he understood the possible consequences of his aging and being alone. He moved to Martinez, California, to be with his sister and never returned.

Artists and newspapers soon touted the amazing towers built by the little man who had disappeared. Then in 1961, Rodia was discovered living in Martinez. In his eighties, with broken teeth and a shock of white hair, he sat unnoticed at an art show in Berkeley where slides of his towers were shown. When the lights went up, Simon Rodia was introduced. He stood to his full 4'10". The audience stood, too, for wave after wave of applause. He bowed and tipped his hat. He died four years later.

Preservation after Rodia

Rodia's bungalow inside the enclosure burned down as a result of an accident on the Fourth of July 1956, [7] and the City of Los Angeles condemned the structure and ordered it all to be destroyed. Actor Nicholas King and film editor William Cartwright visited the site in 1959, and purchased the property from Rodia's neighbor for $2,000 in order to preserve it. The City's decision to pursue expediting the demolition was still in force. The towers had already become famous and there was opposition from around the world. King, Cartwright, architects, artists, enthusiasts, academics, and community activists formed the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts. The Committee negotiated with the city to allow for an engineering test to establish the safety of the structures and avoid demolition of the structures.

The test took place on October 10, 1959. [8] For the test, steel cable was attached to each tower and a crane was used to exert lateral force, all connected to a 'load-force' meter. The crane was unable to topple or even shift the towers with the forces applied, and the test was concluded when the crane experienced mechanical failure. Bud Goldstone and Edward Farrell were the engineer and architect leading the team. The stress test registered 10,000 lbs. The towers are anchored less than 2 feet (0.61 m) in the ground, and have been highlighted in architectural textbooks, and have changed the way some structures are designed for stability and endurance.

Conservation and damage

The Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers preserved the site independently until 1975 when, for the purpose of guardianship, they partnered with the City of Los Angeles and then with the State of California in 1978. The Towers are operated by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department and curated by the Watts Towers Arts Center/Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center, which grew out of the Youth Arts Classes established in the house structure more than 50 years ago.

In February 2011, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art received a grant from the James Irvine Foundation to scientifically assess and report on the condition of the Watts Towers, to continue to preserve the undisturbed structural integrity and composition of the aging works of art. [9] Weather and moisture caused pieces of tile and glass to become loose on the towers, which are conserved for reattachment in the ongoing restoration work. The structures suffered little from the 1994 Northridge earthquake in the region, with only a few pieces shaken loose. An extensive three-year restoration project by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art began in 2017 and suspends public tours within the site (tours outside of the fenced towers and sculptures are still available). [10]

Doorway detail Watts Towers Doorway 01.jpg
Doorway detail
Wall detail, with mosaic Watts Towers mosaic detail.jpg
Wall detail, with mosaic

Special exhibits

A two-part digital exhibit of the Watts Towers (Part 1: Rodia's Ship; Part 2: Rodia's Pueblo) produced in 2016 by Public Art in Public Places for Google Cultural Institute's Google Arts & Culture focuses on Simon Rodia's intention to create the form of ship as well as his own pueblo or village. This online exhibit utilizes high-definition images and special digital technology for viewing image detail. [11]

Two artist interviews, "Watts Towers Q&A with Dominique Moody" and "Q&A With Artist Alison Saar About Her Connection to Watts Towers," were produced in 2012 by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of its Exhibitions on View series.

In 2019, the towers were a gathering place along the 25.5-mile (41.0 km) funeral procession from the memorial for Nipsey Hussle at the Staples Center that wound through the streets of South L.A. [12] At times, the crowd flooded the street creating gridlock. [13]


Jazz musician Charles Mingus mentioned Rodia's Towers in his 1971 autobiography Beneath the Underdog , writing about his childhood fascination with Rodia and his work. There is also a reference to the work in Don DeLillo's novel Underworld . [14]

California-based poet Robert Duncan featured Rodia's Towers in his 1959 poem, "Nel Mezzo del Cammin di Nostra Vita," as an example of democratic art that is free of church/state power structures. [15]

In his book White Sands Geoff Dyer writes about his visit to the Watts Towers in the chapter "The Ballad of Jimmy Garrison".



The Watts Towers were highlighted in the 1973 BBC television series The Ascent of Man , written and presented by Jacob Bronowski, in the episode "The Grain in the Stone — tools, and the development of architecture and sculpture".


Video games

An explanation of how the Watts Towers are maintained Watts Tower How.JPG
An explanation of how the Watts Towers are maintained

Watts Towers Arts Center

The Watts Towers Arts Center is an adjacent community arts center. The current facility opened in 1970. Prior to that, the Center operated under a canopy next to the Towers. [19] The center was built and staffed by the non-profit Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts. Changing displays of contemporary artworks are on exhibit, and tours of the Watts Towers are conducted by the center. The Center's Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center holds art classes, primarily for youth and Special Needs adults from the local community and surrounding cities. Partnerships with CalArts and Sony Pictures provide media arts and piano classes. The Day of the Drum and Jazz Festival occurs annually on the last weekend of every September. It includes arts and craft booths and live music.

Guided tours

The only guided tours of the Watts Towers are given by the Watts Towers Arts Center staff and have included access to the interior of the site. Guides explain the history and context of the towers. As of June 2017 general admission is $7.00, seniors $3.00 and children under 12 years of age are free. [20] Tours run Thursday through Saturday 10:30 am to 3:00 pm and Sundays 12:30 pm to 3:00 pm. There are no guided tours on Monday through Wednesday. NOTE: As of 2017, guided tours are no longer available within the site inside the gates for at least three years while substantial restoration is in progress. In the interim, guided tours are given from the exterior of the site only.

See also

Local landmarks

Regional and international landmarks

United States

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  2. 1 2 3 "Watts Towers". National Historic Landmark Quicklinks. National Park Service . Retrieved March 20, 2012.
  3. 1 2 "Watts Towers". Office of Historic Preservation, California State Parks. Retrieved July 27, 2013.
  4. Department of City Planning. "Designated Historic-Cultural Monuments". City of Los Angeles. Archived from the original on June 9, 2010. Retrieved June 15, 2010.
  5. Goldstone, Arloa Paquin (June 18, 1990). "The Towers of Simon Rodia". National Register of Historic Places Registration. National Park Service.
  6. 1 2 "The Towers of Watts". The Attic. Retrieved July 2, 2018.
  7. de Arend, Lucien. "The History of the Watts Towers". Watts Towers by Sam Rodia. Cultural Affairs Dept. Watts Center. Retrieved June 13, 2017.
  8. 1 2 Goldstone, Bud; Goldstone, Arloa Paquin (1997). The Los Angeles Watts Towers. Getty Conservation Institute. ISBN   978-0892364916.
  9. Boehm, Mike (February 11, 2011). "LACMA gets $500,000 grant to fund its new role as Watts Towers conservator". Los Angeles Times.
  10. Nguyen, Arthur (July 14, 2016). "Conservation Proceeds at Watts Towers". LACMA. Un Framed. Retrieved September 21, 2018.
  11. "Google Arts & Culture | Public Art in Public Places". Google Arts & Culture. Retrieved September 21, 2018.
  12. Wick, Julia (April 11, 2019). "An altar of love blooms for Nipsey Hussle in the shadow of the Watts Towers". Los Angeles Times . Retrieved April 12, 2019.
  13. Jennings, Angel. "Tens of thousands mourn Nipsey Hussle. But his memorial service was all about South L.A." Los Angeles Times . Retrieved April 12, 2019.
  14. Duvall, John N. (May 29, 2008). "The Cambridge Companion to Don DeLillo". Cambridge University Press. Retrieved August 12, 2018 via Google Books.
  15. Fredman, Stephen (August 12, 2018). "Contextual Practice: Assemblage and the Erotic in Postwar Poetry and Art". Stanford University Press. Retrieved August 12, 2018 via Google Books.
  16. The Towers of Simon Rodia (2008), with the documentary short Watts Towers – Then & Now — available on a DVD (2-D or 3-D) from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art bookshop.
  17. Ng, David (February 21, 2011). "The Simpsons' pays tribute to Watts Towers". Los Angeles Times . Retrieved May 1, 2015.
  18. "Episode 3 Series 11". The Museum of Curiosity. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved August 11, 2017.
  19. Wattstowers.us: The Watts Towers Arts Center, and Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center.
  20. "Watts Towers Schedule and Prices" . Retrieved June 18, 2017.