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Fall Preview | Art

Towers of Turmoil

As the Watts landmark reopens, who will care for it remains in question.

September 16, 2001|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Staff Writer

Even Rodia's name is a source of confusion. Born Sabato Rodia on Feb. 12, 1879, in Ribottoli, a village just south of Serino and about 20 miles east of Naples, he sailed to America when he was about 15 and joined his older brother, Ricardo, who had settled in Pennsylvania and worked in a coal mine. Within a few years, Sabato adopted the nickname Sam and worked his way across the country, supporting himself as a laborer. The name Simon seems to have started with a mistake in a Times article in 1937; it stuck from then on.

During his life as "Sam," Rodia moved to Seattle around 1900 and married Lucia Ucci in 1902. Their first son, Francesco, was born in 1903; the second, Alfred, arrived two years later, after they had moved to Oakland. The marriage ended in 1912. By then, Rodia was living in El Paso. At age 38, he married a 16-year-old Mexican woman, Benita. They soon moved to Long Beach, where he launched his creative enterprise by building sculptures in his yard, including a stationary merry-go-round.

Rodia's second marriage lasted only about three years, and his third, to a Mexican immigrant named Carmen, was even shorter. She left in 1921, soon after he bought the narrow, triangular lot at 1765 E. 107th St. and began to build the towers. Apparently, he was not an easy man to live with. Writers who have interviewed Rodia's associates and family members to patch together his biography say he was cantankerous and tempestuous, drank too much and bathed about once a month--with an alcohol rub.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 18, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Watts Towers--N.J. "Bud" Goldstone was identified as the author of a book about the Watts Towers in a Sunday Calendar article on the reopening of the monument. Goldstone wrote the book with his wife, Arloa Paquin Goldstone. The dates when Simon Rodia left the towers and his former house at the site burned down are in question, although most sources put the dates at 1954 and 1955, as the article reported.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 23, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Watts Towers--N.J. "Bud" Goldstone was identified as the author of a book on the Watts Towers in a Sept. 16 Calendar. Goldstone wrote the book with his wife, Arloa Paquin Goldstone. Also, when Simon Rodia left the towers and when his former house at the site burned down are in question, although most sources put the dates at 1954 and 1955, respectively, as reported.

By day, Rodia was a cement finisher and construction worker. At night and on weekends, he built a structure of rebar and scrap steel, lashing the pieces together with wire and wrapping them in wire mesh. He coated the metal skeleton with concrete and decorated the surfaces with glazed tiles, broken pottery, seashells and shards of colored glass bottles.

Over 33 years, Rodia erected 17 structures on his property. Along with the trademark spires--the tallest of which rises nearly 100 feet--there are scalloped walls, planters, fountains, a fish pond, a ship-like structure and a gazebo. His house burned down the year after he left, but the remaining entry has a canopy decorated with a menagerie of tiny ceramic sculptures, and a doorway bordered by tiles and broken mirrors.

By then, Rodia had unaccountably given the property to his neighbor, Louis Sauceda. Sauceda shortly sold it for about $500 to another neighbor, Joseph Montoya, who had no interest in the towers but apparently thought the land had commercial possibilities.

City building inspectors began looking askance at Rodia's project as early as 1948 but took no action until the property had changed hands. In 1957, the Building and Safety Department issued an order to demolish what was left of the house and remove "the dangerous towers," but the authorities couldn't locate then-owner Montoya. In 1959, movie actor Nicholas King and filmmaker William Cartwright visited the towers and became concerned about damage from vandalism and neglect. Determined to save the towers, they found Montoya and bought the property. When a friend of Cartwright, architect Ed Farrell, went to City Hall to get a permit to build a cottage on the site, he discovered the demolition order.

The scenario that unfolded pitted a residents group, the newly formed Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts, against public officials. City inspectors and engineers compiled extensive reports supporting their contention that the towers were likely to come crashing down in a strong wind or earthquake, or simply collapse from their own weight. When Kenneth Ross, general manager of the city's Department of Municipal Arts, asked the engineers what they would do with the Leaning Tower of Pisa, he was told it wouldn't last long in Los Angeles.

The residents' committee decided that the only way to save the towers was to prove their strength and stability. N.J. "Bud" Goldstone, an aeronautical engineer who has served as a consultant on the towers for more than 40 years, designed a test to show that the towers could withstand a 10,000-pound load, equal to the force of an 80-mph wind. One Saturday afternoon in October 1959, more than 1,000 spectators and several television crews watched as the test failed to budge the tower.

After the cheering subsided, the committee took on the responsibility of maintaining the towers. It turned out to be an expensive undertaking as earthquakes, winds, rains and the ravages of time took a toll on the massive artwork. Out of money, the committee sought help. In 1975--after lengthy negotiations--the committee deeded the towers to the city of Los Angeles.

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