Simon Rodia worked nights. He wasn’t moonlighting to put food on the table, or to stay current on his mortgage payment. He dreamed of doing something big, something for the people. For thirty years this Italian immigrant set tile by day, returning home to his bungalow in Watts on a triangular plot next to the Pacific Electric Railroad tracks. Then his real work would begin- an endeavor spanning thirty years and countless hours- the great Nuestro Pueblo (Our Town), more commonly known as the Watts Towers.
Beginning in 1921, Simon or “Sam,” labored daily to build these seventeen spires comprised of steel supports, mortar, 7 Up bottles, Vicks Vapor Rub jars, sea shells and more Jadeite and Fiestaware than the Rose Bowl Flea Market can ever hope to see. What he didn’t use was nails, bolts, welding or scaffolding to create this American folk art masterpiece. Many compare his work to that of Gaudi, however Rodia was illiterate and had never heard of the Spanish architect. More likely he was inspired to recreate the grandeur of the religious festivals of his homeland, specifically The Giglio Feast. Anyone who has spent time in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in July will recognize the trademark towers and boat of that neighborhood’s all consuming Giglio festival in Rodia’s work.
The Watts Towers story almost ended as a taco stand. The 75-year-old Rodia deeded Nuestro Pueblo to a neighbor in 1955, and moved north to Martinez, CA, never to return to Watts. The neighbor planned to demolish the towers and filed for a taco stand permit with the city. Thus began the fight to save the towers. Artists, scholars and preservationists wanted the site declared a historical landmark. The state wanted the illegal and likely unsafe towers torn down. Both parties agreed that a “stress-test” would decide the fate of the towers.
In 1959 a tow truck weighted with an extra 10,000 lbs attached a cable to the center tower. Onlookers held their breath as the truck struggled to dislodge the nearly 100 foot tall tower with its foundation of only a mere 14 inches. Did the tower bend? Not even a little. In fact, the tow truck raised up onto its back tires, bowing to the strength of Nuestro Pueblo.
That is the story of how an untrained, 4’10” tall immigrant with a dream beat the state. Rodia’s legacy is more than just a public art piece. His towers inspired an entire community of artists in and around Watts, whose works can be seen in the new Mingus Gallery, as part of Pacific Standard Time. Also on view in the Watt’s Towers Art Center is one of Andy Warhol’s first ever films, Tarzan and Jane Regained…Sort of made in 1963 with appearances by Warhol himself along with Dennis Hopper. Rodia also must have inspired The Beatles, who included him on the iconic Sgt. Pepper’s album cover. (Rodia appears to be growing out of Bob Dylan’s head.)
Tours are required to view the now gated Nuestro Pueblo. Tours are only $7 and admission to both on site galleries is included. The towers are located just a few minutes drive off the 105 freeway. Incorporate a visit into your next trip to LAX, this is surely something all visitors and locals alike should see.