Tucked into a nondescript block of residential homes in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts is a modern marvel of folk architecture.
The Watts Towers are iconic landmarks of Los Angeles. Italian immigrant Simon Rodia built the sculptures by hand from 1921 until 1954. It was his life’s project: three large towers and 14 spires made of scavenged materials, tied together with wire and covered with cement, tiles, seashells and hundreds of bits of brightly colored glass.
The towers have withstood earthquakes, hailstorms and even an effort by the city to have them torn down. Now they are the focus of a conservation effort, led by scientists at the Los Angeles Museum of Art and engineers at UCLA.
“We have tourists from all over the world who come to the ghetto of Watts just to see the infamous towers,” said King Spider D, who lives next door to the towers. “Whenever you can take a bunch of rubble and create something as magnificent as the Watts Towers, then that is something to be proud of.”
Greg Hamilton, a first-time visitor to L.A., saw the towers featured in rap videos from the early ‘90s and knew he had to see them for himself. The Chicago musician said he was impressed with how the towers were assembled. “It has this really cool origin of found materials, and yet it comprises something completely different and incredible,” Hamilton said.
The neighborhood has changed dramatically in the past century. When Simon Rodia lived there, Watts was mostly German and Asian. After the Second World War black families moved in, and now it’s mostly Latino. The towers always maintained the respect of the community, and gangs considered them neutral territory.
The Friends of Watts Towers Arts Center next door operates guided tours of the towers. In 1990 the towers were designated a National Historic Landmark. But in 1959 city officials had decided they were unstable and issued a demolition order. One of the tour guides, James Janisse, described the community’s response.
“When they began telling people that lived here, ‘The city wants to tear down your towers,’ biggest upheaval in the history of this city. Came short of a riot,” Janisse said. “And people began to protest, they began to do marches, civil disobedience in City Council meetings, to get the attention of elected officials.”
Two former art students, Bill Cartwright and Nicholas King, bought the property the year before in order to build an art center next to the towers. They brought in a former aerospace engineer, Bud Goldstone, to help save the towers. He proposed a 10,000-pound load test. In October of 1959 a truck-mounted crane was attached via a steel cable and pulled on the tallest tower.
“They couldn’t pull the tower down. What they did instead was pull the crane over and the crane fell on the side,” Janisse said. “Half the City Council’s standing there. They said, ‘OK, can we keep it?’ They said, ‘Yeah, you might as well, we can’t pull it down.’ And because of that we are here today.”
Rodia’s use of wiring to tie the steel together, rather than welding or bolting the structure, gave the towers the flexibility to withstand the Northridge earthquake in 1994 and a major hailstorm in 2002. When cracks appeared, they were filled with cement. Yet the cracks returned, and other parts of the towers have fallen off.
Frank Preusser, the L.A. County Museum of Art’s senior conservation scientist, was brought in to look at long-term fixes to the towers. He recounts being at the towers on a hot day and hearing pieces of glass falling off. “This was clearly thermal stress,” Preusser said. “There was no wind, there was no nothing.”
In a trailer next to the site, researchers have lined shelves with broken fragments of support steel wrapped in cement and tile. There are springs from a car, a flat iron and large piece of pipe. Preusser said it demonstrates how resourceful Rodia was, in building the towers using whatever he could obtain.
Preusser, along with structural engineers at UCLA, have connected sensors to the towers that can detect the slightest changes in heat, wind and vibrations. Those measurements are expected to be finished early next year, and will help engineers create a computer model of the towers and predict its most fragile points. The researchers hope these minute changes will provide some clues about how the towers will hold up decades from now.