THE TOWERS OF WATTS
Neighbors were concerned, as neighbors often were in the 1920s. The flat, narrow streets of South Central Los Angeles were home to recent immigrants -- Japanese and Mexican, Filipino and Greek -- but there was one Eye-talian among them and some thought he might be crazy. A little guy, lean and wiry, he spent every evening in his backyard building, building. Asked what he was building, he said, "something big."
The construction began as a gazebo, fluted curves coated in cement and pressed with sea shells, shards of pottery, and green glass from pop bottles. A gazebo seemed sane enough, especially when the Eye-talian added what looked like a fountain, rainbowed with mosaic tiles. But then in the mid-1920s, the towers began to rise.
For the next three decades, Sam Rodia kept building -- alone, always alone. Neighbors would see him scaling his towers, a bucket dangling from one elbow, climbing fifty, sixty, seventy feet in the air. Perched high above the street, the little man smoothed cement over bent steel, then pressed more shells, more shards into wet concrete. Street cars rattled below, the passengers looking up to see the wiry man, climbing, hanging, working. The towers reminded some of sand castles, but most had never seen anything like them.
Today, the Watts Towers are more famous in Europe and Japan than in America. But nearly a century after Sabato "Sam" Rodia bought a small lot on 107st, his towers remain proud, celestial, and utterly unlike any other American artwork. "The Rodia Towers," one sculptor said, "are as pure a work of art as this country can rightly call its own."
Beyond superlatives, the Watts Towers beg a question: How did one man, without training in art or engineering, without power tools or scaffolding, without using a single nail, bolt, or weld, handcraft the largest structure on earth made by a single builder? And then comes the deeper question -- why?
Sabato Rodia was born in a village near Naples in 1879. His parents were peasants making just enough to raise three children, but not four. So in the 1890s, the eldest, Ricardo, left for "L'America." Landing a job in a Pennsylvania coal mine, he sent for 14-year-old Sabato, who in homage to his adopted country, changed his name to Sam.
Like 1,500 miners a year back then, Ricardo Rodia died underground. The death cut Sam loose. He might have gone back to Italy, but he liked America. "There are nice people here," he often said. So he drifted west, landing in Seattle where he worked as common laborer, married, and had three kids. The Rodias moved to Oakland in 1904 but Sam took to drink.
"I was one of the bad men in the United States," he recalled. "I was drunk all the time, always drinking." He and his wife fought and finally separated. Sam headed further south and by 1917 was in L.A. where he married again, divorced again, and finally quit drinking. Saving $900, he bought the lot in Watts in 1921 and moved in with another woman. But she hated the rattling street cars and dusty fields. And Sam had taken to building strange cement sculptures. She left in the summer of 1921, taking his last human love, and all his opera records.
He was forty-two, barely literate, unskilled beyond the basic tasks from a life of labor. To this day no one is sure why, but late in 1921 he began "something big." "You have to be either good good or bad bad to be remembered," he often said. "You gotta do somethin' they never got 'em in the world." He began by digging a foundation.
When finished the tallest tower would top 100 feet and weigh 40,000 pounds. A ten-story structure should have a foundation as deep as a basement, but Rodia dug just a shovel's width wide and two feet deep. The bulk of the ballast is above ground where he piled broken cement, then inserted steel columns covered with wire mesh and coated with mortar. With foundation in place, he moved the only way the small lot would allow -- upward into his dreams.
Down below, the neighborhood was changing. Immigrant families moved up -- and out. African-Americans moved in. LA freeways drew traffic to the city center, turning Watts into a ghetto. The Depression ended; the war was fought and won. But month after month, sleeping just five hours a night, the little man built higher. Back on the ground, he added cosmetic touches, imprinting his tools, his initials, the year 1921 on overhead arches.
In the summer of 1954, he suffered a mild stroke. Then he fell off a tower. The fall was from a low height but at 75, he sensed the end. Two weeks later, he gave the deed for his house to a neighbor, boarded a northbound bus and never returned.
Though the towers had withstood earthquakes, city engineers were concerned. In 1957 the towers were slated for demolition, leading local artists to form the Committee to Save the Watts Towers. Hearings. Studies. More hearings. Sure, the towers were beautiful, weird, unique, but were they safe?
On an October day in 1959, a steel cable was bolted to the tallest tower. At a signal, the winch began to pull. And pull. The tower stood. When the winch lifted into the air, the test was called off. The city canceled the demolition. “Watts Towers Withstand Torture Test,” the Los Angeles Herald announced.
Artists and newspapers soon touted the amazing towers built by the little man who had disappeared. Then in 1961, Rodia was discovered living in Martinez, California. In his eighties, with broken teeth and a shock of white hair, he sat unnoticed at an art show in Berkeley where slides of his towers were shown. When the lights went up, Sam Rodia was introduced. He stood to his full 4'10". The audience stood, too, for wave after wave of applause. He bowed and tipped his hat.
Sam Rodia died in 1965. Today his towers draw 40,000 visitors a year. Filing past the mosaic outer wall, people gaze up at spidery loops and rings, then lower their eyes to the multi-colored fountain, the small sculpted ship, the wonder of it all.
"Think of that little guy, all by himself," another sculptor said. "Not a penny from it, not a penny. We don't have those people anymore. It's a miracle. A thing like that. It happens once in a million years."