SINCE Simon Rodia climbed down from their 99 1/2 -foot peak for the last time in the mid-1950s, after more than 30 years of single-handed labor, the Watts Towers have been the Oliver Twist of L.A. wonders. If this ship-shaped, multicolored folk-art fantasia could talk, it might echo the words of Dickens' waif asking for seconds in the poorhouse: "Please, sir, I want some more."
After many travails, the novelist supplied poor Oliver with well-situated benefactors, leading to a happy ending. Now, the Watts Towers too have acquired a friend who might be in a position to help: Michael Govan, the new director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
"It's one of my favorite things in Los Angeles," Govan says of the landmark, whose longtime back-burner status is reflected in its scant presence on city and state websites and in the reduction of public tours over the last couple of years from six to three days a week.
Although mainly an East Coaster until now, Govan did graduate work at UC San Diego during the 1980s and often went to marvel at Rodia's handiwork. "I've seen them many, many times. They were my destination," he says.
It's too soon to say what ideas or resources LACMA might bring to bear on the towers' behalf, Govan says. He wants to "learn and listen" before acting; but when he feels ready, he "absolutely" aims to give the towers some kind of attention. "You'll see initiatives to bring us out in the community in many ways, and that would be an obvious one."
Given budgetary priorities and constraints facing the state, which owns the towers, and the city, which operates and maintains them, they have long subsisted on thin gruel -- not an ideal situation for a structure, national historic landmark though it be, that is the definition of a money pit. The towers need perpetual repair and conservation because the elements constantly crack their concrete and flake off bits of Rodia's ornate decorative potpourri of tile, seashells, pottery and colored bottle glass.
Another potentially hopeful sign for the towers is an attempt by the group that helped save them in the late 1950s, the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts, to reinvigorate itself and start raising both money and a ruckus on their behalf.
The committee deeded the towers to the city in 1975 because it couldn't afford their upkeep, and it became dormant in the 1980s, to the point where state authorities in 1990 placed it "on suspension" for nonfiling of annual reports required of nonprofit organizations. Michael Cornwell, the committee's vice chairman, says he's working to update the paperwork so that the group will again be legit in state eyes and therefore in a position to attract donors and to pressure officials to take seriously its many complaints about the conservation work city workers carry out.
Meanwhile, the new city budget kicks some additional resources to the towers: $120,000 a year to add two full-time employees doing conservation work and to replace the hired consultant who oversaw that work with an on-staff manager.
-- Mike Boehm