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Officials take a close look at Watts Towers

Report will deem them sound but call for review of maintenance.

October 16, 2003|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Responding to years of criticism from conservationists that the city of Los Angeles has botched its efforts to preserve the historic Watts Towers, the California Department of Parks and Recreation will release a report today it hopes will reassure the public that the towers, although in need of conservation, are in no immediate danger of falling apart.

"There have been all sorts of allegations and scenarios that have been played out," Ted Jackson, Southern Division chief for California State Parks, said in an interview this week. "The hope is that, through these reports, we would have some independent voice letting us know the status of the towers and the integrity of the towers and whether or not we are putting people potentially at risk to view them."

The report -- prepared by a consulting team consisting of a structural engineer and a materials scientist at a cost of $10,000 -- declares the towers to be "structurally sound" and says they "do not present an imminent danger of collapse" or "a risk to the public."

It also concludes that the city's basic treatment and maintenance plan is "quite solid but can use review and improvements," including an updated conservation handbook and a revision of its inspection, monitoring and documentation processes.

The Getty Conservation Institute is reviewing the report and has agreed to work with the city and the state to "chart a course" for the conservation effort.

Virginia Kazor, historic site curator for the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, which manages the towers and the surrounding Simon Rodia State Historic Park for the state parks system, said the report was ordered to mitigate ongoing complaints about city mismanagement from the towers' guardian group, the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts.

The citizens committee, founded in 1959, owned the towers until 1978, when it donated them to the city. The group charges that the city has allowed the soaring structures -- erected by Rodia on his own property over more than three decades and decorated with a colorful mosaic of tile, glass, pottery, seashells and other items -- to deteriorate to the point where immediate and aggressive conservation work is required to save them.

From 1994 to 2001, the city used $2 million in FEMA funds it received after the Northridge quake for repairs to the towers. In 2001-02, it obtained a state grant of about $385,000 that was used for conservation.

N.J. "Bud" Goldstone, a structural engineer and longtime member of the citizens group, is one observer who believes the funds were not well spent. He says that pieces of mortar and decorative material continue to fall off the towers, posing a threat to visitors.

"I wouldn't be afraid to go out there, but those little bits and pieces fall off, and when enough of them come off, a large piece can come down. In the past, 2-pound pieces and larger have fallen down," Goldstone said. He has collected his own sample of small fragments that he says he found on top of the base of the tallest tower. He keeps them in a sealed envelope dated August 2003.

Kazor said the issue of falling pieces has been misunderstood. She said that during the earthquake repair phase, fallen pieces were usually retrieved and stored to be replaced later, since FEMA funds could be used only for quake-related damage. More recently, she said, Goldstone and others might have seen pieces lying around the landmark because "fragments were left in the location they were found because [conservators] were working to put them back right away. At any given moment, you could go and see a fragment and assume it wasn't being taken care of."

However, Kazor agreed with detractors who say the city is not managing the towers satisfactorily.

"We're not managing them to our satisfaction either," she said. "Money would help. It's lean times. And how much money is available for the arts, period?"

Both Kazor and Jackson hope the state will be able to help the city identify new sources of funding for the towers. Jackson said no annual cost projections have been made thus far.

Michael Cornwell, a past president of the city's Cultural Heritage Commission, which has been involved with the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts, was cautiously optimistic after reading a summary of the report's conclusions.

"Hopefully now, with this report underlining and strengthening the concerns of the committee, they will be addressed," he said.

Goldstone is skeptical.

"It's no surprise to me what they wrote. The real answer for Watts Towers is going to be if they do what they have not done for these past many years," he said. "If the monkey on their back is loud enough and strong enough, they might do it. But I don't think so."

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