Celebration will mark 50 years since Watts Towers won a tug of war for survival
With apologies to the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," here’s some theme music for Saturday’s half-centenary celebration at the Watts Towers of a remarkable moment in L.A. lore: the 1959 rescue of Simon Rodia’s triple-spired folk art masterpiece.
It was fifty years ago today/And they couldn’t make the Towers sway!
But that came as no surprise to N.J. (Bud) Goldstone, a hero of that long-ago showdown between community activists who cherished the world-renowned sculptures that are now a National Historic Landmark, and city officials who were eager to tear them down as a purported safety hazard in danger of collapsing in gale-force winds.
Goldstone was a young aeronautical engineer who would go on to work on both the Apollo mission and the space shuttle program, including tests of the Apollo command module and one of its booster assemblies. But he remembers the test he devised to prove that the Watts Towers could withstand an 80-mph wind as “the most complicated test I ever did.”
Rodia had worked on the three mast-like spires of the towers, and the surrounding, ship-shaped sculptural fantasyland he dubbed “Nuestro Pueblo,” from 1921 to 1954. With his solitary work completed, he gave the property to a neighbor and went to live out the rest of his days in Northern California. Within a year the small house he’d lived in had been destroyed by fire, and by 1957, city building officials had condemned the towers as an unstable safety hazard.
In 1959, William Cartwright, a young filmmaker, bought the property for $3,000 with an actor friend, Nicholas King, not knowing it was marked for the wrecking ball. When their architect went to City Hall to pull a permit to put up a caretaker’s home nearby, they got the bad news.
“Personally, I think this is the biggest pile of junk outside a junkyard that I have ever seen,” the head of the municipal Building and Safety Department wrote in a memo at the time.
A citizens’ coalition was formed, the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts, to rescue Rodia’s 99½-foot-high construct of mortar-clad scrap metal and wire, with its tens of thousands of decorative sea shells, tiles, pottery bits and pieces of colored glass.
In July 1959, a hearing to decide the towers’ fate convened at City Hall. It went on for 13 days. Letters decrying plans to destroy the towers came in from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and from the great Chicago poet, Carl Sandburg. Then, the hearing was suspended and the two sides agreed to a trial by fire: a “stress test” in which the towers would be subjected to 10,000 pounds of force, simulating the onslaught of an 80-mph wind. If they withstood the test, they could stay. If not – the wrecking ball.
Goldstone says he had been struck by something the city engineer had said in the newspaper: that “`the towers are going to fall down of their own dead weight.' I knew that was crap, or they would have already fallen down.”
The towers’ open spaces and curved surfaces made them aerodynamically fit, Goldstone realized – Rodia knew what he was doing in designing a structure that even the fiercest Santa Ana wind would never topple. The Purdue University graduate recruited several friends from his job at North American Aviation in Downey, and enlisted sympathetic professors from USC and UCLA to keep a close watch on the towers’ upper reaches during the test.
He would build an elaborate, three-leveled scaffold around the tallest spire, and wrap the tower in about 100 square feet of steel-reinforced padding that would help to distribute the10,000 pounds of force equally around Rodia's structure, guarding it from being damaged in its own rescue attempt. The pull would be exerted by a hydraulic device set up next to the towers.
On the day of the test, Goldstone recalls, many of the 100 or so people who gathered at the towers probably assumed the big truck parked 150 feet away across the railroad tracks, attached to the spire with a steel cable, was going to exert the pulling force. But the truck and cable were only there to provide stability for the hydraulic cylinder that did the actual pulling.
Before the plan could go into effect, the committee trying to save the towers had to OK it. Kate Seinlitz, an art historian, condemned the idea as “a barbaric measure comparable to a witch trial in the Middle Ages.” Jeanne Morgan, a charter member of the still-extant committee, recalls that Goldstone’s proposal got the go-ahead by a margin of one vote.
When the day came, Goldstone said, building department staffers, about 40 of them, turned out to root for the towers’ downfall. “I had done the calculations. I was very confident,” he says. But just in case, he gradually ratcheted up the stress on the towers, raising it in half-ton increments, until it reached the 10,000-pound threshold City Hall had accepted as a fair test of whether the structure was sound.
Under the full load, the towers budged less than an inch. “I think we lost one seashell,” Goldstone recalls.
His association with the towers continues to this day. Goldstone would go on to serve as a consultant on the towers for the city, which took them over from the citizens' committee in 1975. In 1997, “The Los Angeles Watts Towers,” a study Goldstone wrote with his wife, Arloa Paquin Goldstone, was published with backing from the Getty Conservation Institute. In recent years, he has played the role of a civic gadfly, sending out pointed e-mails complaining about what he regards as inadequate resources and erroneous techniques in the conservation work that the towers constantly require. They may be solid in design, but their vulnerability to the elements via rust and decay and the erosion of Rodia’s elaborate ornamentation is a constant problem that the city faces with resources it has long admitted are inadequate.
After a hip replacement, a bout with lung cancer and a serious infection in recent years, Goldstone says he’s not well enough to attend Saturday’s event, but will be represented by Michael Cornwell, current head of the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts, and Jo Farb Hernandez, an art and design professor at San Jose State. Cartwright, whose purchase of the Towers set the stage for the showdown with City Hall, will be part of a panel on the events of 1959 moderated by oral historian Luisa Del Giudice.
The ceremonies begin at noon, and also include a panel of artists who’ve found a muse in the towers and who are part of the current exhibition, “The Watts Towers: 50 Years of Inspiring Art,” that’s on display through Jan. 17 in the galleries of the neighboring Watts Towers Arts Center and Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center. Also in connection with the anniversary, a daylong festival of Towers-inspired films is scheduled for Nov. 7 at the Mayme Clayton Library and Museum in Culver City.
As for Goldstone, he isn’t through with the towers yet. He says he’s been working “just for fun” on a text called “The Secrets of Simon Rodia.” And recently, he says, he has developed a theory that explains one of those secrets. Two very old photos of the towers had long puzzled him, he says, because they showed what appeared to be two finished spires, and not a third in sight.
The answer Goldstone proposes is that Rodia originally finished his project by 1933 – with a twin-towers design rather than a trinity. But the structures, he theorizes, were badly damaged in that year’s Long Beach earthquake, so the artist set to work again, rebuilding them and adding a third. The result, Goldstone posits, is what we have now – saved for posterity by a community effort 50 years ago, and by the ingenuity of a young engineer.
-- Mike Boehm
Photos: Watts Towers; N.J. (Bud) Goldstone in 1997 (middle); Fred Proutz operates a hydraulic power unit that exerted 5 tons of pressure on the Watts Towers in a test of their stability on Oct. 10, 1959. Credits: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times (Watts Towers); Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times (Bud Goldstone); Los Angeles Times file photo.