Off the beaten path Los Angeles: The Watts Towers

The Watts Towers, photograph by NSL Photography

When traveling, I’ve found my journeys can be significantly enriched by going beyond the usual “top attractions” list found in tour books. Visiting locations and people “off the beaten path” can often tell us much about the area and its history and people. The Watts Towers of Simon Rodia is such a place in Los Angeles.

Would I advise first time visitors to LA to skip the Getty Museum, LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), the La Brea Tar Pits, the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, a stroll down Rodeo Drive, the Sony Pictures Studio Tour and other iconic Los Angeles sights, on a first time visit to Los Angeles? No. They’re top attractions for good reason.

Yet there are wonderful sights in Los Angeles beyond its “top attractions.”

Unfortunately, the name “Watts” can evoke memories of Los Angeles’ sometimes violent past. After years of charges of discrimination and police brutality, in 1965, the arrest of Marquette Frye touched off the five-day “Watts Riots,” resulting in 34 dead, more than a thousand injured, 3,400 arrested, and $40 million in property damage.

Watts Towers, photograph by NSL PhotographyToday, while Watts, a mostly residential area, located in southern Los Angeles, has been gentrified, with many African American families having left the area, it remains home to mostly poor Hispanics and African Americans.

When driving into Watts, it’s impossible to ignore the area’s poverty, but nevertheless, when passing the local Metro station at 103rd Street, the sight of the two almost 100-foot Watts Towers almost transforms your vision of Watts.

Sam (Simon) Rodia was born in 1879 in Ribottoli Italy. Rodia emigrated to the U.S. with his brother at the age of 15. Years later, he moved from Pennsylvania to Seattle, Washington, where he married in 1902. Soon thereafter, the couple moved to Oakland, California. He was divorced in 1912, and moved to Long Beach.

In 1921 he purchased the triangular shaped lot at 1761-1765 107th Street in the Watts district of Los Angeles, and soon thereafter, began to construct his masterpiece, which he called “Nuestro Pueblo” (“Our Town”).

For the next 34 years, Sam Rodia worked alone to build his towers without machinery, scaffolding, bolts, rivets, or welds. He used hand tools, pipe fitter pliers and a window-washer’s belt and buckle.

When asked why he made the towers, he answered, “I wanted to do something big and I did it.”

Watts Towers, photography by NSL PhotographyThe Watts Towers is a collection of 17 interconnected structures, with the two almost 100-foot-high towers dominating the neighborhood’s landscape.

As we toured this example of non-traditional vernacular architecture and American Naïve art we were struck by the enthusiasm and pride of our tour guide as he told the story of Rodia and the construction of the Towers, how the neighbors’ children brought him pieces of glass to incorporate in his work, and how years after Rodia died, the people of Watts saved his masterpiece from the wrecking ball.

Rodia was a construction worker by day, but at night he was an astounding artist/sculptor. Rodia adorned his towers with a mosaic of broken glass, sea shells, bed frames, ceramic pieces, porcelain pottery, ceramic tiles, pottery shards, scrap metal, and even a rare piece of 19th-century hand painted Cantonware.

When visiting the Towers you can see green glass from soda bottles of the 30’s through 50’s, and blue glass from milk of magnesia bottles.

The tallest of his towers stands at 99½ feet and contains the longest slender reinforced concrete column in the world. The Towers feature a gazebo with a circular bench, three bird baths, a center column and a spire reaching a height of 38 feet, the “ship of Marco Polo” with its spire of 28 feet, and the 140-foot long “south wall,” extensively decorated with tiles, sea shells, pottery, glass and hand-drawn designs.

In 1955, with his work complete, Rodia, 75, deeded his property to a neighbor and retired to Martinez, California, to be near family. He died 10 years later.

A few years after that, the LA Department of Building and Safety ordered the property demolished, but a group of neighbors and others, “The Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts,” fought successfully to save the Towers.

Watts Towers, photograph by NSL PhotographyIn 1975, the Committee gave the Towers and the adjoining Arts Center to the City of Los Angeles. In 1978, an extensive restoration of the three main towers was begun, and work to maintain the Towers continues today.

The LA Cultural Affairs Department, through the Watts Towers Arts Center, provides tours of the Towers, art lectures, changing exhibits and studio workshops for teachers and school children. Each year, the Center holds the Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival and the Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival.

The Towers are one of nine folk art sites listed in the US National Register of Historic Places, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990.

The Towers are closed to the public on Monday and Tuesday, but can be seen from outside the walls at any time. Tours are given on Thursday through Sunday. The Art Center is open Wednesday through Sunday. For exact days and times go to the Watts Towers website.

Admission is $7 for adults, and $3 for children and seniors. Children under 13 are free.

If you’re in Los Angeles it’s definitely worth the visit. My wife and I highly recommend the tour.

To see more of the Watts Towers go to my Watts Towers gallery.

  • James Penrose

    Well worth a visit but plan to be there and done and gone well before sunset. That is a *very* dangerous part of L.A. if you are the wrong color or are wearing the wrong colors.

    You will likely be hustled repeatedly to and from your car and possibly charged a parking “fee” by local thugs who will not take kindly to a “no thank you”. Don’t leave *anything* of value where it can be seen inside the car. I suggest not coming by cab as you may find it very difficult to get a cab to come get you and you really do not want to spend a lot of time standing around out on the street.

    Do not wander away from the immediate area. People have been killed in this part of town merely from getting off the freeway to buy gas late at night. There’s a reason so many stores and shops look like armored fortresses.