February 12 – Happy Birthday, Simon Rodia

Posted on February 12, 2015

He worked on his art piece for 33 years. He built with his two hands a landmark that is written up in tourist guide books, a place people visit and photograph and talk about:

The Watts Towers.

Watts, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, is known for two things. One is riots, because there was a horrible, violent 6-day riot in 1965. The other thing is much more wonderful: the Watts Towers!

Simon Rodia was born Sabato Rodia on this date in 1879 in Serino, Italy. He emigrated with his brother to the United States when he was just 15, first living in Pennsylvania, then Washington state and finally California. He worked as a construction worker and as a tile mason, plus the occasional odd job. Eventually, in 1920, he settled in Watts.

Why did he start building towers?

Why does anyone make any sort of art?

Apparently, Rodia started small, constructing in his yard a single tower of scrap steel rebar and his own recipe of a sort of concrete, and decorating it with found objects. He had no overall design plan, and no special equipment. He just used a few hand tools and just started building. Neighborhood children started bringing him bits of broken pottery and soft drink bottles.

Rodia called his sculpture Nuestro Pueblo, which means “our town” in Spanish (even though he was Italian!).

By the time Rodia was done building Nuestro Pueblo, there were 17 interconnected towers decorated with glass, ceramic tiles, sea shells, figurines, mirrors, and china.

What was the reaction from the neighborhood, and from the City of Los Angeles? Did people immediately love Rodia's art piece?

Well, sad to say, but there was a lot of vandalism, and the City kept badgering Rodia to get permits. Eventually Rodia quit-claimed his property to a neighbor, moved to the Bay Area to live with a sister, and never returned to Watts.

At that point, the City of Los Angeles decided to condemn the entire structure and ordered it destroyed. However, an actor and a film editor quickly bought the property and worked to try to preserve it. They publicized the towers, and there was opposition to LA's plan to demolish them coming in from around the world. Architects, artists, and activists were among the many people who joined in the effort to save Rodia's towers.

Finally, Los Angeles relented: if the towers could pass an engineering test, they wouldn't be demolished.

Now there is a Watts Towers Art Center, the towers themselves are designated a California Historical Landmark, and there is even a school named after Rodia. Now the surrounding community respects the towers, and there is little attempt at vandalism. Even the Northridge earthquake did little damage to the Watts Towers!

There are only 61 artists, composers, writers, and other famous people from all over the world on the cover of the Beatles' iconic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, but one of them is Simon Rodia (next to the top right-hand Bob Dylan).

Also on this date:

Darwin Day

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