The Watts Towers - The Legacy of a Wanderer

"I had in my mind to do something big and I did it."
- Simon (Sabato) Rodia

Yikes! The month of February has almost come and gone and I have not been very diligent about keeping up with my blog posts. Not for lack of wanting however. House guests and a very potent and lingering illness knocked me out for a few weeks. Only now, am I slowly recovering and so perhaps here is my only post for the month of February. Anyway, before I was confined to bed-rest, I took a drive to Watts in south central Los Angeles (remember the Watts riots in 1965) in search of something quite incredible.

The Watts Towers was started in 1921 by an Italian immigrant, Simon (Sabato) Rodia. Rodia was born in 1879 in the Campania region of Southern Italy. Around the age of twelve, he was sent to America to join his older brothers.

Once in America, lacking any formal education, he labored in the coal mines in Pennsylvania. Sensing not much of a future there, he made his way west to San Francisco. During this time he married and had two sons. His family life however, was not a healthy one. He often left his family for days, leaving them to their own resources. Between 1910 and 1918 his activities and whereabouts are completely unknown having left his family once again. (His wife apparently remarried during this time).

He eventually resurfaced in Los Angeles working in construction. Having abandoned his family, he was determined to do something redeeming with his life....

In the 1920's, he purchased a triangular piece of property (140 ft by 150 ft by 68 ft) in Watts which at the time was a thriving community with a rich variety of ethnic backgrounds - Latino, German, Italian, Chinese, African American and Japanese. Working solo for 33 years from 1921 to 1954, using tile setter tools and everyday found objects such as faucets, backs of soda-fountain chairs - and without the use of any scaffolding, bolts or welding, Rodia began the largest single piece of art work created by one man. He completed these towers one rung at a time, with a bucket in each arm, one filled with concrete and the other with tiles and pieces of glass. The tallest spire is over 99 feet tall.

At the beginning of the Second World War, Rodia's Japanese neighbors were sent to internment camps. Their land was bought up for cheap housing for labor and local defense industries - changing forever, the ethnic make up of the neighborhood. Rodia, who also lived on this property continued his work on the monument until 1954. At the age of 75, he fell off one of the towers, injured his hip and decided then to stop work. He signed the deed of the property over to his neighbor - never to return to the monument again. He had finally fulfilled his mission. He passed away in 1965 and a memorial was held at the Watts Towers. His two estranged sons were in attendance. Three weeks later the Watts riots broke out just a few blocks away - the Watts Towers were never touched.

As mentioned, Rodia lived on this property as well. Although, his house has since burned down, the fireplace (behind the squiggly tree) still remains.

Many people have likened Watts Towers to Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona which was also under construction at the same time. Rodia however, seemed unaware of the structure at the time.The tiles and pieces of glass that adorn the entire monument were carefully selected for their color. He used pieces of pottery, rocks, mirrors, sea shells, marble, tile, Seven-Up bottles and Milk of Magnesia bottles. The vertical components of these structures are made up of steel reinforcements, tied with wire, wrapped with wire mesh then covered by hand with cement.

The gazebo, which he also used as a church, is where he preached as a minister.

The cactus garden.
Marco Polo's ship

Although Rodia claimed that he was never quite sure what he was building, the Towers from the east very clearly seem to form the masts of a boat. And with the boat facing due east - it points towards his original homeland of Italy.

The Watts Towers are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They are also a National Historic Landmark and a State of California Historic Monument.

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