A Monument in His Backyard
A man from Los Angeles collected metal rods, stones, glass, shells, and cookie cutters and built the project of his dreams
WHEN 12-year-old Simon Rodia immigrated to the United States from a small town in Italy, no one could imagine he would one day create one of the world's great pieces of folk art. Twenty-eight years passed before he began building his monument, the Watts Towers. Meanwhile, he made a living doing jobs like constructing buildings, repairing telephones, and setting tiles.
Simon probably developed his building skills while serving with the US Army Engineers during World War I. He was discharged in 1918 and bought a small house with hard-earned savings in a section of Los Angeles called "Watts."
Three years later, he began the project of his dreams. "I wanted to do something for the US because there are nice people in this country," he said.
Simon had no definite plans nor materials to carry them through. Most of his wages were spent buying steel rods and bags of cement. Using nearby railroad tracks for leverage, he bent the rods into different curves and angles. These were fastened together to form spirals winding higher and higher. He mixed powdered cement, added sand in just the right proportions, and slowly mixed water with the other ingredients to make a good mortar. He climbed the tower with a pail in each hand and spread mortar over h is growing structure. Colorful designs appeared as he embedded bits of tile, stones, and seashells in the mortar.
When finished with his daily job as tile setter, Simon rushed home to work on his beloved towers. He worked from sunup to sundown on weekends, singing opera and often forgetting to eat. Some Saturdays and Sundays, he'd ride the big red streetcar to the beach to gather shells. And when money was scarce, he walked the long distance and carried his heavy treasure home in a sack.
Broken dishes were shaped into flowers, and pieces of green 7-UP bottles became part of the birdbath. Simon was fascinated with his growing creation. It formed a natural scaffold, one he could climb to do his work.
Those who spoke with Simon remember his references to great men who inspired him. Although never formally educated, he owned a set of encyclopedias where he read about his heroes: Michelangelo, Marco Polo, Columbus, Galileo, and Buffalo Bill.
Thirty-three years after he began, there were three tall towers and four smaller ones. Simon frequently referred to them as the Pinta, Nina, and Santa Maria, named after the ships of Columbus. The tallest was nearly 100 feet. He built a model ship under the towers, which he called "The Ship of Marco Polo." Three fountains, a birdbath, decorated pathways, and a lacy gazebo were added to his garden of structures. A scalloped mosaic wall separated his yard from the street. Every inch of every object was dec orated, not only with stones, glass, and shells, but also faucet handles, cookie cutters, and tools. His methods of construction and decoration were entirely his own.
At first, neighborhood children shared his dream and helped gather and sort bits and pieces. He paid a penny apiece for beautiful plates. In later years, he quarreled with his neighbors who decided he was a crazy old man. Children taunted him and vandalized his work, taking a cue from their parents. Simon spent even more time working on his beloved towers because he believed that what he started must be finished. As he looked at the strong and graceful outlines against the sky, brilliant colors sparkling
in the sunlight, he knew his treasure was beautiful and a worthy tribute to his adopted country.
One day in 1954, he got tired of the conflict. He gave everything to his neighbor, packed his belongings, and went to northern California where his relatives lived. He remained there for the rest of his life and never returned to Watts.
Even after he left, the towers remained a matter of dispute. Some said they were an unsafe menace. The Los Angeles City building inspector called them "the biggest pile of junk I've ever seen, a king-sized doodle, an eyesore that should be pulled down!"
Five years of vandalism continued, and Simon's house was burned down. In 1959, two young men bought the towers and made plans to restore them. When they applied for a building permit, they learned that the city planned to tear them down.
A committee formed to save the towers bought them from the new owners and devised an engineering test to prove their safety. The fact that the towers had withstood the earthquake of 1933 that flattened everything around them and rocked City Hall 10 miles away, should have been proof enough. But the building department needed further evidence.
On Oct. 10, 1965, 10,000 pounds of pressure with the force of a 70-mile-an-hour wind was exerted on the towers. Only one sliver of mosaic fell off! The towers were so strong that the equipment began to bend, and the test was halted. The city was finally convinced.
The towers are the unique achievement of an Italian immigrant expressing love for his chosen country and the American people, and a reminder of what one individual can do.
"You have to be good good or bad bad to be remembered," Simon said. In the eyes of the world, Simon Rodia was good good. `Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.