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Saving the Watts Towers

August 26, 2009 |  7:00 am

Sam Rodia, Los Angeles Times
Photograph by the Los Angeles Times

Simon Rodia (or Rodilla as The Times referred to him in early stories) with his creation in 1952.

By Devon McReynolds

On a recent smoldering Tuesday afternoon, I visited the Watts Towers for the first time in the three years I’ve lived in Los Angeles. The heat was impossible and the area beneath the towers and structures was closed (it will reopen in September).

Even so, in the 15 minutes I stayed there, three groups of art-seekers came to visit, and all were in just as much awe as I was. Once you get close to the towers, you can see the incredible creativity with which Simon Rodia meticulously pieced together scrap metal, broken dishes, seashells, pieces of glass bottles, tiles and bed springs into a stunning modern art experience in the middle of a Los Angeles neighborhood.

Fifty years ago this summer, public debate arose over whether the folk art sculptures were structurally sound. H.L. Manley, head of the conservation bureau of the Department of Building and Safety, said: "Inspections show these structures are dangerous and should be torn down. They were built without a permit, without inspection and without approval of the design."

On May 25, 1959, the Building and Safety Commission declared the towers unsafe and planned to demolish them if they failed to pass a 10,000-pound "stress test" to see if they would topple to the ground.

The enraged art community, locally and nationally, including New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum, fought back by supporting preservation. In May, the International Assn. of Art Critics sent a letter of protest to Mayor Norris Poulson. James Johnson Sweeney, the director of the Guggenheim, praised the towers as "an expression of enjoyment and creative work very rare in this country, where we are accustomed to think of the more practical issues."

Rodia, 81, refused to take part in the controversy. He had moved to Northern California five years earlier after leaving a grant deed to the property with a neighbor. The deed changed hands again before being bought by William Cartwright and Nicholas King, whose attempts at preservation drew officials' scrutiny.

May 26, 1959, Watts Towers The Times and Mirror-News also took a stand for saving the towers. "The Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, even the Leaning Tower of Pisa have never been condemned as attractive nuisances from which neighborhood kids could fall and break their necks," the Mirror's Jeff Davis wrote on July 31, 1959, before the crucial test. He concluded: "Presumably, if the towers are still standing, the populace will then cheer loudly and the villains from the Department of Building and Safety will slink away and art will be triumphant."

Mirror columnist and television host Paul Coates wrote extensively about the towers and in 1954 he came close to getting a televised interview with Rodia. An assistant brought Rodia to KTTV 10 or 15 minutes before airtime, but as soon as he was introduced to Coates at the studio gates, Rodia fled down Sunset Boulevard -- with Coates and his assistant trying in vain to chase him down.

On Oct. 10, 1959, the Watts Towers passed the test, withstanding a side pull of 10,000 pounds, and they have become an internationally known landmark.

There's no danger of the Watts Towers falling victim to skeptics any longer, but during the anniversary of the debate, visit for yourself. Just make sure to resist any childhood temptation to swing from its sculpted metal rods -- even though they withstood 10,000 pounds of pressure, these aren't your playground's monkey bars.

Note: UCLA student Devon McReynolds recently completed her summer internship with the Daily Mirror and is now in Paris.