How Conservators Stabilized Los Angeles’ Monumental Watts Towers
A masterpiece of monumental sculpture, the Watts Towers are the kaleidoscopic product of an Italian immigrant’s decades-long effort. They rival the Hollywood sign and artist Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” sculpture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) as L.A.’s most Instagrammable landmark.
Though the pandemic delayed the celebration of two 2021 milestones—the state-owned Towers’ centennial and the nonprofit Watts Towers Arts Center’s 60th anniversary—the Conservation Center at LACMA used the extra time to complete essential stabilization work at the site.
Born in 1879, the Towers’ creator, Sabato Rodia, came to the United States at age 15 to work in the Pennsylvania coal mines. Known as Simon or Sam, he lived in Seattle and Oakland, California, and then left to become a day laborer in Long Beach, California. Purchasing a bungalow in the city of Watts shortly before it became part of L.A., Rodia began to build on his property, single-handedly and single-mindedly. He started in 1921 and finished most of the Towers’ 17 interconnected structures by the mid-1950s.
Some believe his inspiration was the ancient Festa dei Gigli (Festival of Lilies) in Nola, Italy, northeast of Naples and not far from his childhood village of Serino. During the June festival, men carry pointed towers (representing traditional trade unions) on their shoulders.
Dominating the triangular walled compound in Watts are three skeletal towers suggesting masts on a ship; the tallest is 99.5 feet high. Other structures within are known as the Boat, the Wedding Cake, and the Gazebo.
A fire destroyed Rodia’s house in 1956, but the sculptures remained. A year or two earlier, he had given the entire property to a neighbor and moved to Martinez, California; he died in 1965, never having returned to Watts.
Saved from demolition in 1959, the site was designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in the 1960s. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1990.
Conservation of the Towers, managed by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs through the Watts Towers Arts Center Campus, is a continuous process. But apart from maintenance and a 2012 restoration project, “nothing [major] had happened since the Northridge earthquake” of 1994, says now-retired Mark Gilberg, former director of the Conservation Center at LACMA.
After reviewing past conservation practices and developing a plan for the site’s long-term preservation, Gilberg oversaw work on the three main towers as his last LACMA project. It was a tall order. Rodia’s monumental sculpture was “inherently [structurally] flawed in many respects,” explains Gilberg, due to the found materials used—particularly galvanized water pipes that corroded, trapped water, and caused the mortar cover to expand and crack.
The Towers’ primary material is sometimes described as reinforced concrete. “But it’s not,” says Gilberg. In a “skin of mortar” over a metal armature are embedded thousands of fragments: pottery and mirror shards, china figurines, seashells, rocks, pieces of colored glass (many from 7-UP and Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia bottles) and, bringing to mind architect Antoni Gaudí’s mosaics, some 15,000 glazed tiles. Rodia also used faucet handles, gears, heating grates, and the like to make imprints in the mortar.
LACMA conservators removed cracked mortar, repaired or replaced corroded sections of the metal structure, and then covered over their work with a polymer-modified mortar matching Rodia’s original in both texture and color. (At top, conservator Ermanno Carbonara is shown repairing a damaged structural element.) The work on the three towers was completed in February of 2022.
Tiled with the words “Nuestro Pueblo,” Spanish for “Our Town,” the canopy that once led to Rodia’s house was also restored. Early this year, work began on the Gazebo. Tours inside the compound’s walls will resume this summer, according to Rosie Lee Hooks, director of the Watts Towers Arts Center Campus, which she describes as “the guardian of the Watts Towers.”
A centennial exhibition about the site’s preservation, I Wanted to Do Something Big, curated by Gilberg, Hooks, and the campus’ Arts Manager Rebeca Guerrero, is on view through August.
Along with the Towers and the Arts Center, the campus comprises the Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center—the famed jazz bassist and composer grew up nearby—and the Garden Studio, where classes on gardening and tiling are offered. Teaching young people how to tile is “our heritage,” says Hooks, who poses the question: “You care about the Towers—what about the community?”
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