Towers of Simon Rodia
1921 to 1954 – Simon Rodia
1765 East 107th Street – map
Officially named the Towers of Simon Rodia, HCM No. 15 is better known to you, me, and everyone else who’s ever heard of them as the Watts Towers.
These towers have got to be among the most photographed of all the Los Angeles monuments, but you can’t really appreciate this landmark by looking at a picture – you need to stand there, in what was one guy’s yard, to grasp the work of that one man.
That one man was Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant who spent time in Pennsylvania, Seattle, and Long Beach before settling on this triangular plot of land in Watts. In 1921, at the age of 42, wanting to do “something big”, he starts his monument by slapping up the walls first, using mainly bedsprings as structure. He calls his work Nuestro Pueblo (Our Town). Then, beginning within the narrower, east end of the wedge, he constructs the “Ship of Marco Polo”, a replica boat with a 28-foot spire.
The south wall
What did he use to build these monuments? Well, what didn’t he use? For starters, Simon didn’t use bolts or rivets, and he didn’t weld. However, he employed pieces of porcelain, ceramic tile, bottles, shards of pottery, scrap metal, rocks, china, sea shells he hauled in from the coast, and broken glass. (Man, I wish I would’ve owned stock in 7-Up and Milk of Magnesia back in the thirties – I’d be paying someone to write this post today.) He used steel pipes, steel rods, wire mesh, cement, and mortar for support. And if the three towers weren’t enough, he also constructed fourteen other structures within, including a patio, a gazebo, a fountain, and a bunch of bird baths. Within the mix, you’ll see lots of hearts, Simon’s initials, and the dates of 1921 and 1923. The tallest tower reaches just under 100 feet.
Inside of the north wall. Even the ground/floor is engraved. Rodia began adding those buttresses afer 1933's Long Beach earthquake.
Jump to 1954, and, project completed with his life’s work now a burden, Simon packed it in, gave his property to a neighbor, and lit out for Northern California. He died there in 1965, having never returned to his Watts home. Simon Rodia was about 75-years-old when he wrapped up. That makes it even more remarkable that he never used any scaffolding to build the towers. Of course, today Simon Rodia is best remembered for standing between Huntz Hall and Bob Dylan on the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album (upper right-hand corner).
Rodia’s house, adjacent to his art, burned down from an errant firecracker a year or so after he moved out.
The spire of the "Ship of Marco Polo" in the foreground
In the late-50s, the city was eager to pull down the towers for safety reasons, but a subsequent stress test was passed with flying colors. The site remained unscathed during the '65 riots, too. However, the 1994 Northridge earthquake proved more debilitating, and the site was shut up until restoration could be completed seven years later.
A working (but not when I was there) fountain
The cactus garden
The Towers of Simon Rodia are now part of the California State Parks system (it's the smallest State Park) but are overseen by the Los Angeles City Cultural Affairs Department.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Landmark, the site’s open for touring. So head to Watts, cough up the $7, and see Rodia’s work of art in person.