years ago I watched
the wondrous PBS series, The Ascent of Man. Jacob Bronouski's
history of civilization spanned not only the whole of the physical world but the entire
swing of recorded time. It concluded at the Watts Towers of Simon
Rodia. It was the great physicist's judgment that they represented
a work of creative engineering and instinctive art ranking as
one of the most astonishing individual acts in human history
-- the apex of man's climb towards ... well, God.
that same time I renewed an acquaintanceship with Clarence Laughlin,
the brilliant and loquacious photographer and book collector
from New Orleans. (Check out Justin Winston's piece about him
in the Nolacon II program book.) Clarence's photographs of the
Towers, published in Life in 1965, are credited with raising
national awareness of their greatness. Clarence actually met
Rodia. Years before, he'd visited Martinez, California, where
Rodia had retired, and found the man walking down the street.
Apparently -- unlike Clarence -- he had very little to say. Why
lived near there, near then, and though I wouldn't have recognized
the weather-beaten, nondescript little fellow, it's delightful
to think that I too might have set eyes on the creator the Watts
would be several years before I got to the 400 square meter triangular
lot at 1765 107th Street East in Watts -- the first time was
in 1978, before Iguanacon, when Celia Chapman took me there.
Although I was desperate to get inside -- where Clarence
had taken his wonderful photos and Bronouski had recorded his
own paean to their greatness -- I was thwarted by a chainlink
fence that I was too timid to climb. Ruth Judkowitz -- musician
and fellow Towers aficionado -- went with me a few years later;
they were enswathed in scaffolding and vandals had been at the
tile decorating the 140-foot exterior wall. The Towers were still
being worked on, to fix damage from the '94 Northridge Earthquake,
the last time I'd been there. I despaired of ever seeing the
interior of the great sculpture.
you see, I despaired too soon. When la belle and I found
the Towers on our last L.A. journey, all was different.
joy. No scaffolding. The last two times I'd been to the
Towers, with Ruth Judkowitz in
'83 and on my own at '96, they'd been swathed -- hidden. Today's
new sun glittered unimpeded off the bits of green 7-Up glass
and colored tile imbedded in the cement coating the Towers' steel.
A new fence and a pretty new park had been constructed around
the Towers, and a sign on the fence contained a word that had
me reeling. Second joy: TOURS.
We spoke with the director of the nearby
visitors' center, Rosie Lee Hooks. She showed us a tape about
Rodia and his project, narrated by Orson Welles, and local artwork
inspired by the Towers -- including works by the kindly gentleman
who gave our tour. Judson Powell's gentle, avuncular voice held
a lot of feeling, a lot of laughter -- he was sixtyish, a pianist,
an artist, and a terrific guide. He opened the fence gate and
took us in -- we'd been joined by a family and a Japanese couple
-- to show us and tell us the great story.
makes the Towers astonishing is not simply the Towers, although
the 17 sculptures that compose Nuestro Pueblo -- Rodia's
name for the work -- are wondrous indeed. They are made of steel
pipe and rods, wrapped in wire mesh and coated with mortar, spackled
with seashells, bits of tile, glass from 7-Up and Milk of Magnesia
bottles, mirrors and dinner plates. The tallest towers are almost
100 feet high; the highest has "the longest slender reinforced
concrete column in the world." They have a lopsided asymmetric
grandeur and simplicity to them that is beautiful, indeed stunning
story is also stunning, too, and it begins with their
creator. Salvatore "Simon" "Sam" Rodia was
born in Ribottoli,
Italy in 1879, and died in Martinez in 1965. He was a man
without pretense or sophistication. He had no education worth
speaking of, and when he came to America he worked in professions
that seldom lend themselves to High Art -- coal mining, tile
laying, construction work, logging. Those who compare his Towers
to Antonio Gaudi's architecture, as some do, would be met with
a shrug of non-recognition. So the question is, where
did this incredible feat of artistry come from? The Towers took
him 33 years to build, 1921 through 1954. Why did he do
much of it -- how Simon Rodia, a onetime coal miner, came to
L.A. and bought this triangular plot of land and, beginning with
the entrance to his little house, began to build ... to create.
Rodia purchased the land because he wanted to do something
big -- he didn't know what, he had no plan, but he knew he
needed room to let it grow.
It grew from his front entryway,
with its mirrored ceiling and inverted plates. It grew in the
baptismal font and chapel he built close to his back door. It
grew in the steel cacti he created, in the fence inscribed with
his initials and the imprint of the tools he used -- and it grew
in the three incredible towers that give his work its name. They
soar, at their highest, 104 feet into the air -- nary
a weld nor a bolt holding them up or holding them together. To
shape his steel, he'd stick one end of the shaft beneath a nearby
railroad track, and bend the thing by brute muscle. To decorate
it, he'd coat the construct with cement and imbed seashells and
bits of bottle and tile.
at the end of his triangular 3-D canvas, Rodia built the final
piece of his steel, stucco, tile and shell masterpiece -- "The
Ship of Marco Polo". Powell pointed out the broken shells
on the Ship -- disgusting tokens of the years when the Towers
sat unprotected and uncared for, and local punks had made sport
of smashing its beauty with rocks. There is no such problem now.
Nor do municipal hacks demean it as an eyesore or an earthquake
hazard, and try to tear it down, as Sam Yorty once attempted.
Rodia built his Towers sturdy ... the test damaged the crane,
but didn't touch his sculpture.
had no education -- no training -- no advisers. He just did
it. His Towers are the most astonishing work not only of
folk art I've ever seen, they are the most astonishing act of
instinctive engineering I've ever heard of. That simple
little man was a titan.
Judson's tour, I learned something else about Simon Rodia. He
was a strong Christian -- an evangelist -- the baptismal font
was utilized, and he had services in his circular chapel. Inside
that chapel, sitting with Judson, you could
feel it. The Watts Towers are spires. The place is
a personal cathedral. Why did he build the Towers?
What did Simon Rodia feel that he had to make material? The Jesuits
have a term for it. A.M.D.G. Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam. The greater
glory of God.
one small tower, in back of all the rest, he placed a miniature
As we negotiated our way back over the knot
of L.A. freeways, I spotted the
distant Watts Towers from the interstate, reminiscent of Old
Ironsides as seen from the streets of Boston. Introducing Rosy
to their glory was one of the best things I'd ever done for her,
and I was proud.
images of the photos in this article are viewable here.]