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The Watts Tower

On a small triangular plot of land, in a suburb just south of downtown Los Angeles, stands one of the greatest pieces of outsider art—a set of tall towers made of steel, wire mesh and concrete, inlaid with broken pieces of tiles, glass, and pottery, and other found items. Its creator was a semi-literate Italian immigrant named Simon Rodia, who spent 33 years from 1921 to 1954 building this architectural marvel known as the Watts Towers.

Not much is known about Rodia’s early life except that he was born Sabato Rodia in 1879 in Ribottoli, Italy. He immigrated to the United States as a teenager and began working as a construction worker. Throughout his life, Rodia worked in rock quarries, logging and railroad camps, which allowed him to gain the necessary skills, as well as material, required to build Watts Towers.

Photo: Yevgenia Watts/Flickr

Rodia started building Watts Towers, or Nuestro Pueblo (Our Town), as he called it, in 1921. He began by digging a foundation, then made the rest up as he went along. He used steel rebars, wire meshes, and concrete as the main support. He decorated the towers with pieces of porcelain, ceramic tiles, broken bottles, seashells, mirrors, and much more. Sometimes the neighborhood children brought him junk. Other times, Rodia walked as far as 20 miles searching for material.

When asked about Nuestro Pueblo, Rodia once said, “I had it in mind to do something big and I did it.”

Indeed, the tallest of his towers stands just a few inches shy of one hundred feet and contains the longest slender reinforced concrete column in the world. The monument also features a gazebo with a circular bench, three bird baths, a center column and a spire reaching a height of 38 feet. Rodia's “ship of Marco Polo” has a spire of 28 feet, and the 140-foot long “south wall” is decorated extensively with tiles, sea shells, pottery, glass and hand-drawn designs.

Photo: Scott Hess/Flickr

In the summer of 1954, Rodia suffered a mild stroke. Shortly after the stroke, he fell off a tower while working. Although the fall was short, Rodia sensed the end. He was at that time 75. Rodia deeded the property to his neighbor and left to live the last ten years of his life with his sister in northern California. When the towers came to the notice of the City of Los Angeles, the authorities promptly ordered their demolition on safety grounds. A group of concerned citizens, intent on saving the towers, organized a strength test. The Watts Tower passed the test and the city agreed not to demolish it.

So far the towers had withstood earthquakes and inclement weather with only minor damages.

Today, the Watts Towers is a National Historic Landmark, that is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, California State Historic Monument, California State Historic Park, and a Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Monument.


Related: The Rock Garden of Chandigarh


Simon Rodia on a tower.

Photo: Kent MacElwee/Flickr

Photo: TravelingMan/Flickr

Photo: hollywoodsmile310/Flickr

Photo: Steve Silverman/Flickr

Photo: Steve Silverman/Flickr

Photo: Steve Silverman/Flickr

Photo: eatswords/Flickr

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