A Vision Made Real: Watts Towers
We visited the Watts Towers on the Sunday before Christmas. Watts Towers are the remarkable creation of an immigrant tile setter named Simon Rodia, who worked on them from 1921 to about 1954.
There are seventeen towers and other structures on the property, the largest being about 90′ tall.
The towers were created entirely by Rodia using hand tools only. He fashioned them from rebar wrapped in chicken wire and packed with mortar. The rebar he bent by hand, sliding the rods under railroad tracks to hold them steady.
He then covered his creations with a mosaic made from all manner of common items – sea shells, broken bottles, odd bits of tiles and ceramics.
What I found so moving about Watts Towers is that it came entirely from a private vision, and was done with no audience in mind. Rodia did not consider himself an artist, he simply had an overpowering need to create something that would make this inner vision real. He worked on his own property in a poor neighborhood where he had a tiny bungalow (the home burned down but the towers remain) and received no notice from the outside world before his creation was essentially complete.
Why Rodia needed to create his towers is something of a mystery. When asked he said, “I wanted to do something big and I did it.” He came to the US from Italy as a young man in 1895. Gradually he moved west, working in coal mines. rock quarries, and lumber camps along the way. In California he worked in construction as a tile setter.
He had a family, which he abandoned after the death of a child.
Rodia likely had his vision in mind when he bought the property in Watts. He specifically wanted a triangular-shaped plot of land. To him the towers were the masts of a ship, though to me (and many others) they suggest cathedral spires.
In the 1950s the city government wanted to demolish Watts Towers as a hazard, but community leaders were able to prove that the Towers were structurally sound (tow trucks equipped with cables could not pull them down). And so Watts Towers remains, next to a small park and community arts center.
What surprised us was how few people were there. You can see the towers only through tours led by volunteers. On our tour there were seven people, four of whom were Judy and I and our boys.
Staff at the arts center told us that many LA residents are reluctant to go to Watts, which is thought of as a high crime neighborhood. This is very unfortunate, because the area immediately around the Towers seemed perfectly safe, and our family never felt uncomfortable.
I did feel something of a bond with Simon Rodia. Though my garden will not outlast me as his creation outlasted him, it is also a realization, considered extravagant by some, of a personal vision. I probably do care more than he did about gaining the appreciation of others, but it is first and foremost something I do for myself.