Skip to main content

Full text of "Simon Rodia's towers in Watts; a photographic exhibition"

See other formats





A^m{^/tot^ tmmUtu/tiltii 







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 
Kenneth Hahn 

Board of Directors 
of Museum Associates 

Edward w. carter 

president, museum associates 

Howard f. Ahmanson 

David E. Bright 

Sidney f. Brody 

Richard f. Brown 

Justin Dart 

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 

Vincent price 

William t. sesnon, jr. 

William j. schefBer 

Norton simon 

Mrs. Kellogg spear 

Maynard Toll 

Dr. Rufus B. von Kleinsmid idrarv 

Mrs. Stuart E. weaver, Jr. L dKA 


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 

James Elliott 

chief curator and curator of modern art 

William osmun 
general curator 

Ebria Feinblatt 

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 

George Kuwayama 
curator of oriental art 

Gregor Norman-wilcox 
curator of decorative arts 

Larry curry 
research assistant 

Frances Roberts Nugent 
instructor in art 

Executive committee 
contemporary Art council 

Gifford Phillips 

Michael Blankfort 

Mrs. Stanley Freeman 

Taft schreiber 

Donald Factor 

Mrs. John Rex 

Mrs. Harry sherwood 

Harry w. sherwood 

Mrs. Frederick weisman 

Frederick weisman 

Max zurier 

The committee for 

simon Rodia's Towers in watts 

N. J. Bud Goldstone 

William cartwright 

William osmun 

Max Gould 

Mrs. Kate t. steinitz 
recording secretary 

Miss Brenda saville 
corresponding secretary 

The Board of Directors 

Mrs. sol Babitz 
Thomas Davidson 
Edward Farrell 
Nicholas King 
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) 

the man 

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 

the work 

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 

The "Gazebo" 

Outside the South wall looking East 

A detail of the South wall 

The Test, October 10. 1959 

recent history 

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 



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; 

September, 1959. 

"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. 



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. 

FOREIGN publications: 

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. 


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 

Photomurals: LICHTY 



.-•i.'ilTJ. <^*-" 



V«^? *— "^ 





\»--w«r,-.'-'^- - 





i^-^ ^