Simon Rodia's Watts Towers; The legacy of an Italian folk genius who 'built tall' for 33 years.
| Los Angeles
Watts does not tower, of course. Neither does it rise into the kind of conspicuously lofty slums that implies Poverty USA.
The neighborhood of Watts is low-rise, a parody of Levittown. It is a mockup of the American suburban dream -- a wall-to-wall sprawl intended to provide the good life with stucco houses under umbrella palms.
Against that backdrop, the towers that Simon Rodia created over a 33-year span are a parody, too, of the minarets, the spires, the steeples, turrets, and fortresses shaped by the powerful on the other end of the spectrum of American wealth.
More than parody, perhaps, the complex that Simon built is an obsession, an obsession that only a folk genius could elevate into a 99.5-foot structure.
Call it architecture, or even sculpture, it was ''built in the air and held together by materials little firmer than air in a structural sense,'' engineers now say.
Rodia was what held Simon Rodia's eight splendid towers together.
When the illiterate Italian immigrant was not building and rebuilding the towers -- adding shell to shell, crockery to more crockery, imprinting concrete with faucet forms or boot prints -- he was maintaining it, covering up concrete with more concrete where it was needed.
''Overbuilding'' is how the more technologically attuned describe why his towers still stand.
When Rodia left Watts in 1954 at age 75, however, the building stopped. More than that, so did the guaranteed life for this astounding collection of skeletal forms sprawled out like a boat, ''bottomed'' with baptismal fonts and surrounded by a stone wall.
Like a garden, Rodia's work needed tending, a ceaseless round of caretaking, to keep the concrete from cracking, releasing the embattled materials and allowing water to rust and corrode the armature beneath.
''Had work started immediately, we wouldn't have the problems and the predicament we now have,'' Seymour Rosen, chairman of the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts, now puts it.
Instead, in the four years after Rodia walked away (1954-58) and the committee took over, and the six years when the city owned the towers (1975-81), rot settled in. Today, some 50 percent of the superb landmark needs restoration. For all the fascinations and beauty of the work, the repair creates almost as many problems as the creation.
''I think if I hire a man he don't know what to do,'' Rodia once said. ''A million times I don't know what to do myself.''
Rodia's words were an omen. While supporters of the structure await the state's granting of funds to the firm of Ezra Ehrenkranz to fix the aging monument, the issue of how to address its execution, or re-execution, is unresolved.
The problem stems from its origins. There are actually eight towers, two of them two stories tall, as the committee notes, yet there are no bolts, welds, or rivets -- just the ''longest slender reinforced columns in the world, covered with 72,000 sea shells, not to mention crockery and glass.''
Held for seven years by the committee and handed to the state half a dozen years ago, the towers show the erosion caused by the construction, but compounded, first by a shoddy kind of reconstruction - pieces inserted here and there and broken chunks simply shoveled aside - and second, by a lack of continuing maintenance.
Visit the Watts Towers on a rainy day and the moisture and problems are almost palpable. ''Acid fog,'' worse than the invading drizzle, is not as apparent but more deadly.
The work already under way beneath a ghostly scaffolding has patched in the loose mosaics as best as the preservationists can. Boxes filed in long rows show photographs of the original. Using these as sources, they have chipped apart the concrete to heal the rusted core beneath the ominous crack. Then the hole is cemented over once again.
It is a process that keeps the cement from cracking and saves the tile, but the finished product is smooth compared with Rodia's scored surface.
''There are a lot of concessions to be made,'' says Ward Treadwell of the Office of State Architecture restoration department.
One decision is to leave what was Rodia -- the scored concrete -- and show what is the repair -- the smooth surface. ''Sometimes you have to sacrifice a little of Simon's work to save the rest,'' he says.
The patchwork process bothers the towers' lovers. Although mindful of the fact that six months of acid fog can chew away much of Rodia's works, the committee members have worked to bring a less improvisational aspect to the process. The Ehrenkranz work is research along with repair.
They also grieve that Rodia's labors never earned the care that Rodia brought to them. Simon knew nothing about construction, Rosen admits. ''He did it by being redundant,'' by scoring and rescoring his parts. It worked well enough for the time.
When the city tried to demolish the building it wouldn't come down. ''You could lose nine legs and it would still stand on seven,'' Rosen says.
Wheeling and dealing, Simon scraped together various arts: phone poles here, a bit of steel there. He even bootlegged power for some lights attached to the towers at one point.
That improvisation meant that the work that Ehrenkranz faces is as varied structurally as it is sculpturally.
On the large scale, for instance, the towers to the east are stronger than those to the west. On the small scale, restorers climbing up to fix an individual leg may find mixed strengths in the concrete and mixed security in the mosaic parts.
The main issue, Rosen and the committee feel, is simply to get started.
With every day of delay, nature does its meanest to undo the prodigious work that defies nature's laws of gravity and of the bounds of human energy.
The Watts Towers, in restoration as well as in creation, are a testimony to the complications of creativity as well as to the fascinations of one genius's mastery over time and space.
It is no surprise.