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Issue is up in the air

Safety concerns at Watts Towers prompt state to order a review. The city says there is no risk.

June 12, 2003|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Two years after a $1.9-million seismic repair job at the Watts Towers, a committee of longtime activists is complaining that Los Angeles city officials are letting the quirky urban landmark fall apart, and state officials have hired outside experts in response to give a third opinion on the site's safety and preservation.

City officials say the complaints are overblown and there is no safety risk, a view echoed by on-site engineering and conservation consultants to the city. But those consultants acknowledge that the city's Cultural Affairs Department hasn't followed through on repeated requests for money to pay for closer inspections, and that some upper reaches of the towers -- which rise as high as 99 feet, 6 inches -- haven't been closely examined for seven years, possibly longer.

Facing this conflict, officials at the state Department of Parks and Recreation -- which owns the towers and leases them to the city -- in March decided to spend $10,000 to have structural engineer John Kariotis and materials scientist Frank Preusser evaluate the site and the city's preservation plan.

The central problem, said Preusser, is that "the towers have what I call inherent vice: built-in instability" because of vulnerability to corrosion from moisture. Preusser said he was reluctant to elaborate before reviewing more documents, and that if liability issues can be solved, he hopes to make a close inspection with the aid of a 110-foot cherry-picker. But so far, he said, "I think the city is making a diligent effort to preserve the towers."

Also invited to the March meeting was Timothy P. Whelan, director of the Getty Conservation Institute. From a quick look, Whelan said, he was unable to form any meaningful opinion on safety issues, but he said, "I think the towers are in active deterioration." Whelan said the Getty would be happy to advise on the development of a management plan for the site, but so far the city and state haven't asked.

Preusser and Kariotis, both based in Los Angeles County, are expected to return their opinions in August, but if past tussles over the site are fair indication, the dispute may simmer longer.

The controversy began soon after the day, about 82 years ago, when Italian immigrant Sabato (often known as Sam or Simon) Rodia began a binge of unpermitted construction at his triangular residential property on East 107th Street.

City officials estimate that the towers draw 25,000 visitors yearly. Their surfaces are decorated with bits of bottles, tiles, toys, pottery, shells and other items. Instead of bolts, rivets or welding, they depend on mortar, rebar, mesh and wire for structural support.

Rodia, a construction worker who came to the U.S. from Italy as a youth, built the towers over more than three decades, beginning in 1921. In his 40s when he began the towers, Rodia worked with castoff materials and without written plans, and in about 1954 he handed over his deed to a neighbor and abruptly left town. By the time Rodia died in 1965 in Martinez, Calif., ownership of the towers had passed to members of a citizens' group called the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts, which successfully fought off a city effort to demolish the towers. Among the members of that committee were aeronautical engineer N.J. "Bud" Goldstone and community activist Jeanne S. Morgan.

Over the following years, as disputes flared over how to care for the site and who should do it, ownership passed from the committee to the city to the state, which in 1978 signed a 50-year pact leasing the property back to the city. In 2001, workers completed a seven-year seismic repair job to the site's three tallest towers and two nearby walls, with the cost paid by federal earthquake relief funds.

But critics, still led by Goldstone (who lives in Westchester) and Morgan (who now lives in Santa Barbara), say the city has done too little to spot and seal cracks in those areas and the rest of the site, which includes another 12 structures as high as 40 feet.

"They don't want to spend a dime," said Goldstone, 77, who served as the city's consulting engineer at the site from 1986 until 2000, when his contract wasn't renewed. (He is also co-author of a 1997 book on the towers published by the Getty Museum.)

"Pieces are falling down and have been for months. I'm nervous about people getting hurt," said Goldstone, who said he visits the site about once a month.

"The city just doesn't take it seriously," said Morgan, who said her last visit was in April.

Michael Cornwell, who serves as president of the city Cultural Heritage Commission, says he's not impressed with the city's efforts. "I don't think that they follow up on the recommendations that they receive.... I think they'd like to get rid of it, frankly, and let the state take it."

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