Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2007

 

A.M.G.D.:  Simon Rodia and the Watts Towers by Guy Lillian

 Many 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.

Around 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 Simon 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 should he?

I 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 Towers.

It 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.

As you see, I despaired too soon. When la belle and I found the Towers on our last L.A. journey, all was different.

First 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.

What 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 to behold.

Their 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 it?

I knew 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.

Down 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.

Rodia 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.

From 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.

Atop one small tower, in back of all the rest, he placed a miniature Winged Victory.

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.

[Larger images of the photos in this article are viewable here.]

 

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