LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART
towers in watts
A oS'- >" -^^^ /noj^r
sponsored by the contemporary art council
and the committee for
simon rodia's towers in watts.
los angeles county museum of art 1962
Board of supervisors
LOS Angeles county
Ernest e. Debs
Frank g. Bonelli
Burton w. chace
warren m. Dorn
Board of Directors
of Museum Associates
Edward w. carter
president, museum associates
Howard f. Ahmanson
David E. Bright
Sidney f. Brody
Richard f. Brown
Charles e. Ducommun
c. V. Duff
John J ewett Garland
Mrs. Freeman Gates
Ed N. Harrison
David w. Hearst
Roger w. jessup
Joseph B. Koepfli
Mrs. Rudolph Liebig
Maurice a. Machris
Charles o. Matcham
Dr. Franklin d. Murphy
John R. pemberton
William t. sesnon, jr.
William j. schefBer
Mrs. Kellogg spear
Dr. Rufus B. von Kleinsmid idrarv
Mrs. Stuart E. weaver, Jr. L dKA
Dr. M. Norvel voung WS ANGCIES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART
The Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in
Watts welcomes your contribution for the support
of free art lessons for the children in Watts and
maintenance of the Towers where they are held.
Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts
P. O. Box 1461
Los Angeles 28, California
Street number and mail slot, by the entrance in the South wall
The LOS Angeles county
Museum of Art
Richard f. Brown
chief curator and curator of modern art
curator of prints and drawings
stefania p. Holt
curator of costumes and textiles
Eugene i. Holt
assistant curator of costumes and textiles
Henry t. Hopkins
assistant curator of modern art
curator of oriental art
curator of decorative arts
Frances Roberts Nugent
instructor in art
contemporary Art council
Mrs. Stanley Freeman
Mrs. John Rex
Mrs. Harry sherwood
Harry w. sherwood
Mrs. Frederick weisman
The committee for
simon Rodia's Towers in watts
N. J. Bud Goldstone
Mrs. Kate t. steinitz
Miss Brenda saville
The Board of Directors
Mrs. sol Babitz
Dr. Ez Lecky
From the West
Simon Rodia's Towers excite the interest of all who see or know of them.
People wonder about the man and why and how he built them. More sophis-
ticated visitors, who may not ask these questions, are often more impressed
than those who seek easy answers. ^ The contradictions of the Towers; these
fantastic, glittering, lacelike structures rising from their prosaic neighbor-
hood, this lyric statement by a practicing skilled laborer who lacked any
formal artistic training, this artistic order created from the rubbish and
litter of society, command wonder and respect from any sensitive observer.
^ Though the Towers have received recognition through a film and publica-
tion abroad and elsewhere in this country, this is the first exhibition devoted
to them. It has been made possible by the efforts and interest of more people
than can be acknowledged here but particular thanks are due to the Com-
mittee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts and the Contemporary Art
Council for their sponsorship, to Professor Paul Laporte for his essay on
Simon, the Towers and their recent history, to Mrs. Kate Steinitz whose
archives, the result of years of devoted labor, will continue to be a primary
source for all interested in the Towers, to Miss Clare Bian for her scholarly
work on the Towers, to Seymour Rosen whose sensitive photographs reveal
many subtle aspects of the Towers to an increasing audience, and to John
Espinoza for his imaginative installation of the exhibition. H The Towers
themselves are located about two miles East of the Harbor Freeway in the
community of Watts at 1765 East 107 Street, and may be visited daily.
From the South
Simon Rodia in Watts (photograph fro
magazine. Los Angeles. March 1947)
Simon Rodia is a slight man with a large head and big, gnarled hands. When
he uses a tool his hands become tender and loving. There is a complete dedi-
cation to the task at hand and nothing beyond seems to exist. He is incon-
spicuous in his shaggy work clothes, or conspicuous only in a society where
the line between laborer and white collar worker has faded. Simon's eyes are
alert, shifting from keen observation to broad friendliness; his prominent
nose announces an obstinate thinker. Talking, he is not only obstinate but
also solitary. His thoughts go meandering in their own way; he is hardly
touched by questions or contradictions. A cantankerous old man — much like
Michaelangelo in his letters — he likes to complain about taxes and prices,
about women painted and in pants, about drinking parents who use foul
language and corrupt the younger generation. But there is also Columbus
and Marconi and Marco Polo, the Egyptians and Rome and Luther and
Julius Caesar. And there is this rock of a sentence: "I was going to do some-
thing big, and I did." ^ It has been thought that his learning came from the
Encyclopaedia Britannica which he owned, even though there is a suspicion
that he may not have known how to read. It is known that he attended
meetings of the Italo-American society. His information, much like his work,
is a collection of bits and pieces which he fitted into pretty patterns. What
it lacks in accuracy is made up by imagination. H Simon (his real name
may have been Sabatino ) was born in Italy near Naples, around 1880. His
father borrowed money to send Simon's older brother to the United States.
Simon, still at a very young age, followed his brother shortly after. Little is
known for certain about Simon's life in the United States until 1921, when
he started work on the Towers. But putting the often contradictory fragments
of information together, one visualizes a rebellious and proud man who, in
the first half of his life, ran aground with women and alcohol. A tremendous
emotional pressure must have been bottled up in him, released finally in a
peculiar urgency and obsession. This physically and mentally tough peasant
set out on a long, long voyage of humble dedication, severe discipline and
grinding routine. A self-destructive tendency was converted into creative
construction. His sense of self-reliance comes out in the item on the generals
which he acts out with his characteristic mimic expressiveness. There were
only three generals according to him: Alexander, Hannibal and Caesar.
They went ahead of their troops; all the others, they had their feet on the
desk. 11 When he began work on the Towers, Simon was around forty ftnd
earned his living as a tile setter. From this moment on his life was solitary
and he dedicated himself completely to the Towers. Simon worked on the
Towers for 33 years, from 1921 to 1954. All the money he could save was
used to acquire cement and steel; all his spare time went into the work on the
Towers and into trips to collect shells, broken tiles and bottles for his
mosaic incrustations. By 1954, now way in his seventies, Simon became
tired. It is said he was disappointed because of opposition and lack of interest
in his work. He felt that he had done enough and that the Towers were
practically finished. He went to Martinez near Berkeley in Northern Cali-
fornia where he had some relatives, a nephew and a brother-in-law. But he
was as proud as ever and preferred living by himself on beans to becoming
dependent on the charity of his relations. Now, in the spring of 1962, as he
walks the streets of Martinez, the lonely man is well known to the towns-
people. When you address him on the street he may hold forth for hours on
end, complaining about the bad course of the world and mumbling some-
thing about Columbus who, after his great accomplishment, ended up in
chains. Even though he did appear — well shaven, in a clean dark suit and
white shirt — before a group at the University of California in Berkeley,
where he was given a standing ovation, the Towers are a thing of the past
for Simon Rodia.
Simon Rodia in Martinez and Berkeley. 1961
Detail. South wall
The entrance, toward the West end of the South wall
What makes the Towers "tick"? What made the man tick who made the
Towers? How did he achieve his task singlehandedly? Once one has sur-
rendered to the serenity and beauty of the Towers, and absorbed the shock
of their singularity, he may emerge with these questions. Ij Asked whether
he had any help in making the Towers, Simon answers: "I could not afford
any help and I would not have known what to tell him; most of the time I
did not know what to do myself." Here is one secret of his creativeness.
There is no preconceived plan, no calculation, only an immediate response
to the needs of the moment. — The other secret of his single-minded crea-
tivity may very well be the fracture of his life between the disorderly rebel-
liousness of his first forty years and a deep longing for a lasting order. Simon
expresses this in the simple urgency of one sentence thrice repeated: "I was
going to do something. I was going to do something. I was going to do some-
thing." Spoken in crescendo and ending in something like a shout. ^ But
what makes the Towers tick? I believe it is their organic quality. As in nature
there is a reason for everything, and there is nothing without a reason. The
layout with the arcaded walls around was determined by the odd, triangular
shape of the lot. The lacework of the towers was determined by the need of
one man creating a tall structure without the aid of scaffolding, doing all
the work alone. It was the very design of the spires which provided the
scaffolding as Simon went on building. Like in a tree that adds rings as the
years go by and it grows taller, so Simon created two layers of vertical sup-
ports reinforced with horizontal rings around the cores of the spires, making
Section of the South wall
Section oj the South wall
A "Stalagmite" group,
also called the "Cactus Garden"
them wider at the base and allowing him to add to their height. And always
the solitary man climbing down to refill his little pail with cement, and
climbing up again to add at the top. Thus he finally reached the great height
of almost one hundred feet in the central tower. 1| The laciness of the spires
with their center columns, rings and spokes is effected by steel beams, alter-
nating between T beams and angles, and steel bars which he bent by insert-
ing them under the close-by railroad tracks. From the smaller and larger
spires and towers spokes are reaching out in all directions, reinforcing the
vertical part and at the same time giving an arbor-like effect. All the metal
parts are covered with cement over chicken wire. The joints are neither
bolted nor riveted; they are held together with cement over wire. Not even
the colorful incrustation is merely an amenity; it creates a protective shell
over the reinforced cement. Thus every part and combination of parts in
these structures is a technical necessity while at the same time emerging as
the character and beauty of the whole. U Nor is it only medium and tech- •
nique which give organic quality to these structures. The Towers could not •
be what they are, these materials and techniques could not be used, in any •
climate other than that of Southern California. Greater humidity and cold*
would be their ruin. And this brings us back once more to the man who
created the Towers, who came from Southern Italy with its similar climate,
From the Northwest
who, from his early childhood, was predisposed for just such a climate.
Moreover, his experience as a tile setter in California, where tiles were used
traditionally since Spanish Colonial times, gave a solid mechanical base to
his enterprise. Beyond this, however, one must not forget that the bending
and weaving and tieing together into the strong lacework of this magic
garden was all Simon's very own invention, completely without precedent.
^ And then there are, growing through and over the presiding syiranetries
of these organic structiu-es, the variations and irregularities. The ship of
Marco Polo (perhaps the first part constructed after the wall), located at
the narrow end of the pointed, triangular lot; the three main towers, majestic
in spite of their transparent lightness; the fountain, the arbor, the benches,
the groups of stalagmites, and the stately gallery of broken mirrors and
trinkets leading from the garden door to the entrance of the house. The
greater formality around the house is contrasted to the freer treatment of
the other parts. Areas of cement with molded and impressed designs are con-
trasted to those encrusted with shards in a burst of color, or with tex-
tures, like those of the stalagmites covered with crushed glass, of the arches
encrusted with white shells, or of those flat areas covered with the round
bases of green bottles. Just as there is an unerring sense for organic structure,
there is also an unerring sense for color. The many-colored brightness of
broken fayence tiles, rescued from the dump piles, is reassembled in an hap-
hazard and yet deliberate tumble unfailing in the distribution of colors and
shapes. A lowly material has been transfigured, new life has been created
from what had been discarded by an aflBuent community. 1[ And while no-
climate but California's would tolerate the Towers, it needs the sun of'
Southern California to bring their sparkling colors to life. To consider the-
Towers as folk art is befitting only in part. They are indeed folk art because
they were made by an imtutored artist. But unlike other folk artists Simon
had no established examples to work from, no guidance but his own inven-
tiveness. His structures may have a vague resemblance to Gothic spires, but
the way he put them up is entirely his own. The colorful incrustations of the
surfaces are indeed similar to those that the Spanish architect Gaudi in-
vented at the begiiming of this century. But it is unlikely that Simon ever
saw these works, and one must conclude that not only his particular use of
reinforced concrete but also of mosaic incrustations was spontaneous. 1| The
utter xmiqueness and singularity of Simon's monimient is uncontested. There
is only one other humble man, the French mailcarrier Bernard Cheval, who,
like Simon, spent 33 years in building his structures. He said of himself what
Simon Rodia might have said also: "Let a man more obstinate than me
attempt such work." (Plus opinatre che moi se mette a I'oeuvre) Simon
Rodia, instead, left the imprints of his himible tools on his walls, like those
Neolithic people who engraved drawings of their tools into the rocks. His-
mysterious inscription, nuestro pueblo, points to his sojom-n in Mexico, to'
his Mexican neighbors in Watts, and to his devotion for his adopted land."
But most of all hfUESTRO pueblo is the solitary village of cheerfulness
dreamed up from the long past memories of a lonely man.
The East end of the South wall
Detail. South wall
Jv®^^^ \'''^Vr' hM^/J 'r^"—^'-^
A panel of the South wall
A panel of the South wall
iase of panel in the South wall
Outside the South wall looking East
A detail of the South wall
The Test, October 10. 1959
Simon worked on the Towers for 33 years, from 1921 to 1954. In 1952 William
Hale took a motion picture of the Towers, of Simon at work, of Simon hold-
ing forth on his ideas, of his neighbors' reactions to Simon's work. This film
is an important record and at the same time good entertainment. Tj In 1955,
only a year after he had left for Martinez, the old home by the Towers
burned down, possibly as a result of vandalism. In 1957, the City's Depart-
ment of Building and Safety ordered the demolition of the Towers because
they might be dangerous to public safety. By 1959 two courageous young
men, the film editor William Cartwright and the actor Nicholas King, had
acquired the Towers which they hoped to save for the public benefit. H the
COMMITTEE FOR SIMON rodia's TOWERS IN WATTS was formed in 1959, and
later incorporated as a non-profit organization. Its aim is to carry out a
program of preservation and maintenance of the Towers, and to establish
the tower area as some kind of cultural center. Ij In the spring of 1959
hearings began before the Department of Building and Safety. The Towers
Committee was ably represented by its legal counsel Jack Levine, by the
architect Edward Farrell and by engineer N. J. Bud Goldstone. There was
a difference in the safety margins worked out by the City Department and
by Goldstone respectively. The former based its calculations for allowable
stresses on steel and combination columns while Goldstone used values for
reinforced concrete. Finally, a compromise was worked out according to
which the tallest tower would be subjected to a 10,000 pound load test, to be
conducted by engineer Goldstone and at the Committee's expense. TI The
dramatic test took place on October 10, 1959. The 10,000 pound load was /
applied by a hand-pumped hydraulic jack. When the load ran up to its '
maximum of 10,000 pounds the deflection of the tower was minimal, but the '
main beam of the test rigging through which the whole load was applied to .
the tower began to give. Thus, the maximum load was applied only for one •
minute instead of the stipulated five minutes. But the representative of the *
Building Department was satisfied that this test was sufficient proof of the "
safety of the Towers. TI This test demonstrated the astounding resourceful- •
ness and intuition which guided Simon in the construction of the Towers. '
Even though they reach only 14 inches into the ground, they are so redun-
dant and well connected that the heavy load applied to them (much heavier
than could ever be expected under natural circumstances of wind or earth-
quake) had no ill effect. It is very likely that a more conventional structure
would not have stood up so easily under such a severe test. H Once the im-
mediate danger of demolition was removed, the Committee dedicated itself
to raising the money for the test and for the acquisition of the Towers. This
was accomplished during the short period of two years by donations, fund
raising campaigns and entrance fees to the Towers. The income from the
entrance fees is a small but steady revenue. But there were days when the
number of visitors rose to over a thousand. H In the summer of 1961 the •
Committee initiated its first cultural activity. Free art classes for neighbor-
hood children were offered on the premises of the Towers. This activity was •
so well received that it will be continued in the summer of 1962. H It is the
intention of the Committee to create a cultural center around the Towers.
Plans for redevelopment have been drawn up by architect Ed Farrell in
consultation with a special committee. But great financial problems must
still be resolved before this next step in the work for the Towers of Simon
Rodia can be taken.
PAUL LAPORTE, Immaculate Heart College, Los Angeles, California
Inside the South entrance looking Northeast through what was once a window of
Simon Rodia's house. All that remains is this wall and the fireplace.
From inside the South wall
Inside the North wall looking East
From the Southeast
Outside the entrance at the West end of the North wall looking South to the "Gazebo"
From the Southwest
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY BY KATE T. STEINITZ
ARTICLES BY AUTHORS:
COATES, PAUL in Los Angeles Mirror News, October, 1955; April 4, 1961 and others.
FRANKENSTEIN, A. "Los Angeles' Monument to Non-Conformity." San Francisco
Chronicle, August 23, 1961.
GOLDSTONE, N. B. "The Structural Test of Simon Rodia's Tower." Conference,
Society for Experimental Stress Analysis, Washington, D.C., April 20, 1961.
"Structural Test of Hand-Built Tower." Technical Paper for the Society of
Experimental Stress Analysis at Dallas, Texas, May 18, 1962.
Experimental Mechanics, 1962.
GOLDSTONE, PHOEBE. "Watts Towers show Structural Capacity of Lathing."
Progressive Architecture, April, 1960.
JARREL, SANDFORD. "Watts Towers" (Fiction) New York Daily News. May 19, 1960.
KRASNE, LUCILLE. (On Art Classes at the Towers) Southend Bee,
September 6, 1961.
LANGSNER, JULES. "Simon of Watts," Arts and Architecture, Vol. 58, July, 1951;
"Los Angeles." Art News, September, 1959.
Craft Horizon, Vol. XIX, 6; November, December, 1959.
Westways, October, 1959.
LAUGHLIN, CLARENCE. "The Watts Towers." Article and photographs. Vogue,
Vol. 13, 3. February 2, 1961.
NORDLAND, GERALD. "Object Makers." Los Angeles Mirror News, February 27, 1961.
RAU, PEGGY. "Monument found in Rodia Towers." Citizen News, June 1, 1961.
SELDIS, HENRY. Los Angeles Times, Art Section. July 5, August 2, 1959;
March 13, 1960; January 22, March 12, 1961.
WEINSTOCK, MATT. Los Angeles Mirror News. November 7, 1959, February 10,
November 5, 1961.
WOLFF, VIRGINIA. Aufbau (German American Newspaper). January 1, 1960.
BOOKS WITH CHAPTERS OR PASSAGES ON THE WATTS TOWERS
CONRADS, u. and SPERLICH, H. Phantostische Architecture. Stuttgart, Hatje, 1950.
JONES, BARBARA. Follies and Grottos. London, Constable, 1953.
NEW WORLD WRITING, NO. 2, MENTOR SERIES 79. "The Artist nobody knows"
by Seldon Rodman, 1952.
SEEWERKER, J. Nuestro Pueblo, Los Angeles, City of Romance. Boston,
Houghton Mifflin, 1940, "Glasstowers and Demon Rum."
SEITZ, W. C. The Art of Assemblage. New York. The Museum of Modern Art, 1961
(With Color Plates of the Towers).
YOUNG, J. Course in making Mosaic. New York, Reinhold, 1957.
Ameryka, U.S. Information Agency No. 13, 1959 (In Polish).
L'Arte Milan. "A Unique Masterpiece of Bizarre Construction." By Kate T.
Steinitz. October-December, 1959.
Aujourd'hui, "Les tours de Watts de Simon Rodilla." June 8, 1956.
Domus Milan, "Gli straordinarie torre di Watts." December, 1951.
Evening Herald, Dublin. June 5, 1959.
Neue Zuercher Zeitung, "Simon Rodia's Tuerme von Watts," by Kate T. Steinitz.
January 30, 1960.
a selection of important EDITORIALS, PICTURE SPREADS AND PRESS NOTICES:
Christian Science Monitor, April 8, 1953; May 28, June 8, 1959.
Citizen News, May 25, July 9, 17, 23, October 12, 1959; August 25, 1961.
The Daily Californian (Berkeley), October 1 and 17, 1961.
Flair Annual, 1953.
Harper's Bazaar, December, 1952.
Hollywood Citizen News, October 12, 1959.
Hollywood Advertiser, May 18, 1959.
Los Angeles Examiner, Sunday Highlights, March 7, 1961; numerous
articles 1959 to present day.
Los Angeles Herald Express, December 29, 1960 and numerous others.
Los Angeles Mirror News. Numerous articles 1959 to present day.
Los Angeles Times. Numerous articles 1937 to present day.
New York Daily News, May 19, 1960.
New York Times, May 31, July 10, 12, 16; October 12, 1959; August 23, 1960.
Newsweek, July 20, 1959.
Pasadena Kiwanis Club News, February 23, 1961.
People's World, August 15, 1959.
San Francisco Sunday Chronicle, August 15, 1961.
The South End Bee. Numerous articles, 1959 to present day.
Time Magazine. New York "Labyrinths of Watts." September 3, 1951.
UCLA Librarian, October 15, 1959.
Vacationland (Disneyland) Winter 1960/1961.
Design: porter & Goodman design associates
Photography: SEYMOUR ROSEN, unless otherwise noted
Typography: AD compositors
Lithography: ray burns
Installation of the exhibition designed by: j. GARCIA ESPINOZA
V«^? *— "^