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.

Watts Towers from outside south wall.
Watts Towers from outside south wall.

There are seventeen towers and other structures on the property, the largest being about 90′ tall.

Watts Towers seen from the adjoining park.
Watts Towers seen from the adjoining park.

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.

Simon Rodia. Photo from www.wattstowers.us.
Simon Rodia. Photo from http://www.wattstowers.us.

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.

Mosaic with glass bottles.
Mosaic with glass bottles.

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Rodia also used all kinds of objects to create patterns in the mortar.
Rodia also used all kinds of objects to create patterns in the mortar.
Including his tile setter's tools.
Including his tile setter’s tools.

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.

A baptismal font decorated with broken bottles. Rodia eventually became a Pentecostal minister.
A baptismal font decorated with broken bottles. Rodia eventually became a Pentecostal minister.

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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.

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He had a family, which he abandoned after the death of a child.

View from the bottom of a tower.
View from the bottom of a tower.

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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.

Ship masts or cathedral spires?
Ship masts or 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.

Rodia wrote his initials, "SR" on several places around the towers.
Rodia wrote his initials, “SR” on several places around the towers. If you look carefully you can see it in five places in this picture. There is also the date 1921, when he started work on the Towers. Below are the words “Nuestro Pueblo”, which was Rodia’s name for his creation. It means “our town”.

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.

Houses across the street from the Towers.
Houses across the street from the Towers.

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.

Rodia's bungalow burnt down, but the entrance remains.
Rodia’s bungalow burnt down, but the entrance remains.

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.

54 Comments on “A Vision Made Real: Watts Towers

  1. What a new as t post. I am enjoying being an armchair tourist in LA. Thanks for sharing your journey

    • I think the key to its invisibility lies in the fact that it was built in a poor neighborhood, and so it was just an oddity built by a crazy old man. Hardly worth noticing until some people who had cultural credentials announced it was something special.

  2. Wonderful post, thank you for sharing your visit. I don’t know why it’s never occurred to me to visit the towers but they’re definitely on my “next time” list now. Regarding the safety issue I just mentioned to my husband that the next time we’re in L.A. I want to make a stop and he said “I don’t think they’re in the best neighborhood…” – this coming from a man who isn’t easily put off by things like that. I reminded him that things change and the Watts of now isn’t the Watts of earlier times, and told him of when my mom and I stood at the corner of Haight and Ashbury (in 1996) and she marveled that she never thought she’d be there and feel “safe”…

    • Sure, Watts is a little rough. I wouldn’t wander around alone in the middle of the night. But there’s no reason to think it’s especially dangerous to drive out to the towers and see them.

  3. Fascinating story. I didn’t get there when I lived in S. Pasadena for a summer. It’s wonderful that he created all those structures simply because he felt a need to do so. Too often people neglect their artistic natures because they feel they aren’t “good enough” or that there are so many more talented or knowledgeable people. The tiling he used is stunning! So much work and time went into it!

    • It is a fascinating story, I agree. I think a lot of this sort of folk art is never discovered by the outside world. Fortunately, the towers were too big to ignore – and people came together to save them.

  4. Thanks for sharing this most interesting place. It’s marvelous what the human imagination…and determination…can create.

  5. Perhaps Simon inspired the bottle tree. In any case, he sure knew how to make something out of nothing. I expecially like the patterns in the mortar.

    • Maybe we should call them Rodia trees in his honor! But he would probably cover the “tree” in cement, break the bottles, and make the pieces into a mosaic.

  6. It’s amazing that this is all the work of one person using only hand tools! Thanks for the great images; now I want to visit the towers myself.

  7. I am glad you wrote about this. It seems that I heard about this years ago but didn’t know what it was. Interesting that one’s vision would last so long. It is quite beautiful. You can see his soul lifted up here.

    • I know what you mean. It is hard for me not to believe this doesn’t have something to do with the pain he felt at the death of his child.

  8. I have heard about this but never the story behind its creation or seen any photos up close and personal. Thank you for sharing. I like that he did it for himself but in reality most of us today are hampered in that quest by what we imagine our neighbors might think. Lots of food for thought. 🙂

    • This guy clearly didn’t care what anybody thought. When someone asked a question he thought was stupid he would just walk away without a word. There was a neighbor who would sort of be an intermediary between him and the outside world.

  9. I’ve been enjoying your LA posts but I think this one is my favorite. Just imagine if more people went their own way like this, what an amazing world it would be…. but what a nightmare for every HOA lover!

    • That’s probably why he could only have done this in a neighborhood like Watts … not an HOA kind of place and rules generally were often ignored.

  10. Impressive. I have never heard of these structures before and what a shame to read they don’t get visited by many folks.
    Can you imagine someone setting out to create such works of art nowadays – a. they wouldn’t be allowed or b. they’d cost so much it would not make them worthwhile.
    So glad I caught this post.
    Happy New Year to you, Judy and the boys!

  11. I’ve never been to the Watts Towers. My years spent in CA were near San Diego, the bay area, and Sacramento. But I’ve heard of them and would love to see them in person. They have a very Gaudi-esque feel to them. I think all gardeners are artists, whether we define ourselves that way or not. Creating a garden is an art form that always reflects the artist/gardener. So cool that you went to see these. 🙂

    • Yes, he reminds many people of Gaudi. The issue of whether or not a garden is an art form is an interesting one, I am not sure what I think.

  12. Hi Jason, this is so interesting and reminds me a lot of Gaudi’s work in Barcelona. Have you seen the Sagrada Familia or any of Gaudi’s other works?, the style is quite similar, maybe Watts visited Spain before going to America. Its sad his work is not seen by more folk, hopefully your blog post will help.

    • I have never been to Barcelona and have not seen the Sagrada Familia but Judy has. I have seen pictures, though, so I know what you mean. Our tour guide said that the resemblance is coincidental, there is no reason to think Rodia was aware of Gaudi. I very much would like to go to Barcelona some day to see the cathedral but also to see Gaudi’s garden, the Park Guell.

    • It certainly made me think of Sagrada Familia. I saw SF in 1983, so it was very much unfinished and skeletal. These towers aren’t unfinished, but the skeletal shapes and quirky vision have some similarities.

      • Hi Judy, my daughter visited this year and reports its an extraordinary place and highly recommends a trip there. We had taken the children when they were young in the mid 90’s – lots of scaffolding even then. PS You take some wonderful photos and are a great team.

      • I could not help but immediately think of Gaudi and his buildings in Barca. How wonderful if not rather strange to have built such structures at a similar period in time ( I believe the Sagrada famila was started in the 1880s) and how interesting to to read that he later became a minister. I should imagine him to have been a rather odd character in life but the structures are rather beautiful. if you liked these so much you should book a trip to Barca you will love it. D

  13. Watts was the scene of riots and fires in the ’60’s, so I can see how its reputation refuses to fade. No less personage than Buckminster Fuller jumped on the bandwagon to save the towers, declaring them absolutely stable when city fathers were using the excuse that they would collapse. I don’t see how anyone could avoid being inspired by this regular Joe with his Magnificent Obsession. Thanks for your coverage.

    • Watts gained notoriety from the riots that occurred across the country in 1968 after the assassination of MLK. I remember the TV images even now, though I was 10 years old at the time. However, that was a long time ago. The people there I talked to felt that local TV plays up the idea of Watts as a war zone. As people who live there, however, they see it as a mixed community of mostly working class and middle class people that has some problems. However, it is not a place where you take your life in your hands by visiting. From what I saw they were right. We have a similar problem here in Chicago regarding the South Side. This is a part of the city consisting mostly of working class and middle class neighborhoods, though a few areas are truly blighted. However, if you watch TV and live in the suburbs, you are likely to think that the entire South Side is a wasteland of poverty and despair. It isn’t.

  14. I also think of a “bad neighborhood” when hearing the name Watts. Amazing structures he created by bending and fashioning rebar and wire. Quite the feat and very colorful. I think it looks like a cathedral spire too. To me they look like they have Barcelona influence of Antoni Gaudi.

  15. Man this completely moved me. I am so at a loss for words right now and I feel overwhelmed with the beauty of what he created. There is something so simple and beautiful about the soul’s desire to just create….and when it is done in an undefined manner that is when it speaks the loudest to me. I want to go there tomorrow and take my beans….this is a place we will see for sure. Thank you so much for passing this along Jason….truly inspiring! Nicole

  16. This was a real treat to see through your eyes. Thanks so much. One of the things I learned moving to the south is that a ‘bad’ neighbourhood is really a dog whistle that means people of colour live there. When I first moved to Austin the househunter told me she wouldn’t even drive on the east side. It blew my mind to learn that segregation continues.

    • Segregation definitely continues, it just isn’t explicitly enforced by laws, but a combination of public policies, market forces, and racial attitudes has the same effect.

  17. Well, he might not have seen himself as an artist, but he most certainly WAS an artist! So glad that the towers didn’t get torn down. I saw them once myself, surprised I didn’t see them more often since I lived my whole childhood in the LA area. Watts did have a lot of crime and gang activity when I lived in the LA area though, perhaps its changed a little since then.

  18. Thank you for gently pushing back, belowthread, against the idea that a neighborhood encompassing working class people of color is necessarily “dangerous” or disposable. Great art and many great artists have emerged from Watts, before and after its anti-police brutality demonstrations.

  19. Pardon me, *against the idea that a neighborhood encompassing working class people of color is necessarily “dangerous” …*

  20. Jason I am so glad you highlighted this magnificent work of art…spiritual, masterpiece…so many words to describe its beauty and too bad more don’t see it…the houses surrounding seem to have fallen under its artsy spell.

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