People: Simon Rodia & the Watts Towers

In 1895 a fifteen year old Italian boy named Simon Rodia, along with his brother, emigrated to the United States. They settled in Pennsylvania where they both got a job working in a mine. After his brother died in a mining accident, he did what many single men of the time did – he headed west. He bounced around Northern California for years but eventually settled in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1920.

Struggling with alcoholism and what he described as a deep despair, Rodia was filled with a “fierce determination to build something big.” In 1921 he undertook a massive project that he called “Nuestra Pueblo” (Our Town), but eventually became known as the Watts Towers.

The Watts Towers are a series of 17 interconnected structures made out of steel rebar, Rodia’s own blend of concrete, and wire mesh. Embedded into the concrete are a myriad of found objects: broken glass, ceramic pieces, old soda bottles, sea shells, figurines, and more, much of it brought to him by neighborhood children. Lacking any sort of formal training in either art or construction, Rodia’s towers are considered one of the best examples of “outsider” or naive art.

In 1955 Rodia, tired of battling with the city and neighborhood vandalism, eventually left his house and project to move to Martinez, California, to be with his sister. He passed away in 1965.¬†Two years later, in 1967, The Beatles released their album “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart’s Club Band.” Simon Rodia is immortalized on the cover, in the back row on the right, next to Bob Dylan.

Long embattled by the city for lack of permitting and safety standards, the Watts Towers were kept alive by a concerted effort of artists and celebrities, before the city finally declared them a historical landmark in 1990. They now sit in what is called the Simon Rodia Historic State Park. The park is open to the public, with regular visiting hours.