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Visitors Get a Rare Look at Towers

Neighborhood landmark, damaged in the Northridge quake, has been closed for repairs. Guests gaze in awe at the work.

October 02, 2000|JOCELYN Y. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It took 33 years to complete the Watts Towers, 10 seconds of violent shaking during the Northridge earthquake to damage them, and years of labor to make them healthy again.

The repair job is still not complete, but this weekend, the public can tour the Watts Towers for the first time in more than 6 1/2 years--a sign that the long-running reconstructive surgery is finally coming to a close.

On Saturday, people once again toured the towers, looking up, down and around, wondering how one man could do it all.

"It's real beautiful," said 23-year-old Donnell Ray, smiling as he walked among the structures. "I think a lot of people look at the towers and get a little motivation. You look at the towers and feel strong about the city. It's amazing it was just one man."

There was background music to the long-awaited--albeit temporary--reopening of the towers. The two days of tours coincide with one of the year's biggest and most rhythmic weekends this side of Watts: the 19th annual Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival on Saturday and the 24th annual Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival, going on today.

"This is our premier event of the year," said Mark Greenfield, director of the Watts Towers Arts Center. "I just thought [the tours] would be a special added attraction . . . It's been so long that the towers have been unavailable to people."

The Watts Towers attract people from all over the world, who have heard about Simon Rodia's sky-kissing creations. The Italian laborer single-handedly created the towers in his yard over the course of three decades beginning in the 1920s.

The towers--the tallest is nearly 100 feet high--are constructed of a steel core wrapped in wire mesh. Rodia then covered it all with mortar and inlaid found treasures: colored glass, sea shells, colorful tiles, rocks, pieces of pottery and broken ceramic plates.

"This is an international icon," said Rosalind Goddart, who heads the Friends of the Watts Towers Arts Center. "It's a testament to an iron will."

But in recent years, the public could see the towers only from the sidewalk behind a gate, and the view was usually obscured by scaffolding.

"When people come, you can see the disappointment on their faces, because they can't get in," Greenfield said.

On Saturday, before the tours began, small groups of people stood outside the gate, straining to see. For some, the tours were a sweet reunion. For others, it was a day to get acquainted.

"This is my first time being here," said John Waldman, of Culver City, as he stood inside the walls of the towers. "I first heard of the towers when I was 6 or 7 years old." Waldman toured the towers with his wife, Liz, and Louis, their 2-year-old son.

"Wow, Lou," Waldman said as he walked through the gates, holding the child's hand. "You don't know how lucky you are."

Louis knew. He walked in, looked around, and then he was off running. "Look at this!" he said, heading to the colorful base of one tower, before heading over to another.

To be inside the walls that enclose the towers is to feel the circular motion of Rodia's world. Visitors walk around the base of the spires. They see bird feeders covered in green soda bottle glass. They sit on a circular bench inside a color-splashed gazebo. And until Felix Madrigal, the caretaker, warns them not to, they sometimes climb stairs that lead onto a three-layer cake-like mound.

Madrigal was busy on Saturday.

Even before the earthquake, the towers had long stints of enclosure in scaffolding. "In 1979, the state had scaffolding up," and the work lasted until 1985, said Bud Goldstone, an engineering consultant who has worked on the towers. Back then, the towers were being repaired, "then the earthquake undid much of that," he said. The towers experienced nearly $2 million worth of damage. The repairs are being paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The quake left the neighborhood with a big-name celebrity that nobody could get close to.

Ray grew up in Watts. A conservation corps worker and hip-hop artist, he even worked the towers into some of his lyrics: "I'm from the boondocks of Watts, where the towers tangle . . . "

Still, he had never gone on a full tour--until Saturday. The towers gave him even more to sing about, more reasons to think he and his positive raps might make a difference.

"It's amazing; it was one man," he said. "I'm glad they're keeping his dream alive."

To Geoffrey Crothall, who is visiting from England, the towers are another indication that "the deeper you go, the more similar we are," he said. "A lot of people don't choose to realize that."

The travel book writer is working on a chapter comparing the towers to a similar house in South Africa. The two creators even used much of the same material. "Somehow, there's a connectivity."

To Bridgit "Bird" Burgan, who had never heard of the towers until Claynette Ramsey invited her, the towers say one thing loud and clear: Never give up on your vision, "no matter what people say."

Greenfield already knows that message. Although regularly scheduled tours are not expected to begin until next year, he envisions a multilingual corps of docents who can explain the towers in any language to world visitors. He sees tourism growing and serving as a stimulant for economic growth in the area.

And he sees the drum and jazz festival growing through community support.

"I'd like to bring in groups from Haiti, from Brazil and other countries; it's important because we have constituents here from all those countries," he said. A consulate or perhaps the state department could sponsor performers as a cultural exchange.

Over this weekend, thinking big and bold seemed in order.

The towers are open for self-guided tours from noon to 4 p.m. today. The jazz festival runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Both are free.

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