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date: 02 March 2021

Rodia, Simonfree

(1879–16 July 1965)
  • Richard Cándida Smith

Rodia, Simon (1879–16 July 1965), artist, was born Sabato Rodia, in Rivatoli, Italy, a peasant community near Nola, twenty miles east of Naples, to Frank Rodia and Angelina (maiden name unknown). During much of his life in the United States, Rodia went by the nickname of Sam. He himself never used the name Simon, which was the result of a largely inaccurate Los Angeles Times newspaper article in 1937 in which the reporter among many other errors called Rodia “Simon Rodilla.” While the last name was given correctly in later articles, the incorrect first name Simon stuck. Scholars who have worked on Rodia and the Watts Towers have consistently tried to reintroduce the name Sabato.

Rodia’s family immigrated to the United States in the early 1890s and settled in central Pennsylvania. Little is known about Rodia’s early life, except that he moved to the West Coast in his late teens and worked as an itinerant laborer in rock quarries, logging and railroad camps, and as a construction worker and a tiler. He married Lucy Ucci in 1902 in Seattle. They had three children, one of whom died in infancy. They divorced in 1912. In 1918 Rodia lived with a woman who used the name Benita Rodia, but it is not known if they were married.

In 1921 Rodia purchased an unusual triangular-shaped lot (151-by-69-by-137 feet) at 1765 East 107th Street in the Watts District of Los Angeles. He immediately set to work to construct a large assemblage structure that he called “Nuestro Pueblo,” Spanish for “Our Town.” He first built scalloped masonry walls around the lot. He then constructed seven towers and other arbor-like enclosures out of steel rods and reinforced cement. He decorated the walls of his structure with mosaics made from thousands of tile shards, broken dishes, seashells, and pieces of bottles. He covered the walls with impressions of handprints, work tools, automobile parts, corncobs, wheat stalks, and various types of fruit. He incised his initials into the wet cement as well as recurrent heart and rosette shapes. Humorous touches include teapot spouts sticking out of the walls and a cement foot with a cowboy boot. Using only a tiler’s tools, Rodia designed and built the structure entirely by himself, working evenings and weekends. During the day he worked as a telephone-line repairman, tiler, or security guard. Over a quarter century he continued adding to and refining his piece until 1948.

Six years later, he suddenly gave his property to a neighbor, Luis Sauceda, who one year later sold the towers to Joseph Montoya, who planned to use the towers as a backdrop for a taco stand but was unable to get his business started. In 1959, after the towers were condemned as a public hazard, two young filmmakers, Nicholas King and William Cartwright, bought the property from Montoya for $3,000 and transferred the title to the towers to the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts, a nonprofit coalition of citizens interested in preserving the towers for posterity. An engineer proved the towers safe, and in 1975 the state of California and the city of Los Angeles assumed responsibility for conservation and maintenance of the towers as a public heritage site.

After giving the towers to Sauceda, Rodia retired to Martinez, California, where his sister lived, and where he spent most of his time visiting friends and family. He did not continue any artistic work. After 1959, as greater international attention focused on the towers, he welcomed the visits of scholars and admirers. In 1961 he attended a conference on the towers at the University of California, Berkeley. He expressed satisfaction that his work had found recognition, but he never saw the towers again after he left in 1954. He died in Martinez.

In the 1920s Rodia had lived with a woman known to surviving neighbors only as Carmen; there is no evidence that they were married, and she left him in 1927. For the rest of his life Rodia lived alone, and the first news reporters to write about the towers assumed their creator was a reclusive eccentric. However, his neighbors later explained that Rodia participated in social clubs in the Watts area, and it is now known that he traveled to downtown Los Angeles to attend meetings of the Italo-American society. (He spoke Spanish fluently, and his Mexican neighbors thought he was Hispanic.) For most of the thirty-three years he lived in Watts, Rodia encouraged his neighbors to visit and use his project. Weddings and baptisms were celebrated under the towers.

Rodia told William Hale, who made a documentary film on the towers in 1952 as a student project, “I was going to do something big, and I did.” He said he wanted Nuestro Pueblo to be a monument to himself: “You have to be good good or bad bad to be remembered.” His heroes were Copernicus, Galileo, and Columbus, and he spoke of his work as celebrating their spirit of exploration. He also told interviewers that he started working on his project to keep himself busy after he quit drinking.

The triangular shape of the lot, created by the diagonal slash of railroad tracks running alongside his property, was ideal for the display he created. At the narrowest point, Rodia built “Marco Polo’s Ship,” a bench that resembles a four-tiered galley with seashell-encrusted masts. Then come three lofty towers, the highest 99½ feet tall, with four smaller companions, 10- to 15-feet high each. The towers create the outline of the composition and ensure that Nuestro Pueblo is visible for several blocks. The base of the triangle, the area closest to Rodia’s house (which burnt down in the mid-1950s) contains the most park-like elements in the project: a gazebo-arbor, stalagmite groupings, fountains, birdbaths, and benches. The basic materials of the towers are steel beams surrounded by concrete over chicken wire. The towers’ lacy use of space comes from the interlocking circular tiers of vertical columns, reinforced with woven spiral and elliptical horizontal rings and spokes connecting the individual towers to create delicate, lace-like shapes soaring into the sky. The mosaics, a veritable museum of valuable Batchelder and Malibu tiles, form a protective shell over the reinforced cement. The basic materials in Rodia’s composition remain visible for what they are and the forms, while suggestive of imagery, have no specific program. The towers suggest both church spires and the modern skyscraper; the stalagmites, both the natural forms of a cactus garden and miniature apartment buildings; the arbor and incised designs speak interchangeably of parks, the industrial work of automobile parts and construction tools, agriculture, and pure purposeless beauty. Possible folk roots of the towers and ship may be ceremonial towers of wood and ribbon used for the Festa de Gigli, celebrating San Gennaro, the patron saint of Nola. Yet Rodia’s forms, colors, and techniques are unique. Rather than nostalgically recreating memories from his early childhood, he reflected upon the rapidly changing world of the laboring immigrant.

Other works attributed to Rodia include a fireplace in a house in the Los Feliz District of Los Angeles, a tower covered with seashells in the yard of a house in Malibu, California, garden ornaments at the home of his sister in Martinez, California, and, most importantly, concrete and mosaic carousels constructed in the backyard of Rodia’s home in Long Beach, California, in 1915. His Long Beach creations, which appear to be rehearsals for the Watts project, were demolished in 1961.

Though the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia barely escaped demolition, they are now recognized as one of the finest examples of American environmental art. Rodia’s work inspired a generation of assemblage artists, and the towers were featured in the 1961 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “The Art of Assemblage.” Through the sheer force of the creative intelligence they manifest, the towers uplift the Watts community. They serve as an urban oasis, providing a dignified public space for ceremonies. The towers have become the site of the Watts Towers Arts Center, which offers classes in the arts to the community and sponsors several annual music festivals.

Bibliography

Documentation of the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia, including correspondence and interviews, is located at the conservation office attached to the site. Published accounts of Rodia and efforts to preserve the Watts Towers can be found in Selden Rodman, “The Artist Nobody Knows,” New World Writing No. 2 (1952); “The Watts Towers,” pamphlet published by the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts (c. 1960); Kate Steinitz, “A Visit with Sam Rodia,” Artforum 1 (May 1963), 32–33; Calvin Trilling, “ ‘I Know I Want to Do Something,’ ” New Yorker, 29 May 1965, 72ff. A chronology of Rodia’s life, an illustrated description of the towers, a review of conservation efforts, and a bibliography can be found in Leon Whiteson, The Watts Towers of Los Angeles (1989). Jon Madian’s Beautiful Junk: A Story of the Watts Towers (1968) is a fictionalized account written for children of Rodia’s life and his relationship with the Watts community. The relation of Rodia’s work to modernist art in California is discussed in Richard Cándida Smith, “The Elusive Quest of the Moderns,” in On the Edge of America: Modernist Art in California, ed. Paul J. Karlstrom (1995). Two obituary notices that consider the social and aesthetic relevance of the Watts Towers are “In Memoriam Simon Rodia,” Los Angeles Free Press, 23 July 1965, p. 5, and “Death of an Enigma,” Architectural Forum, Sept. 1965, p. 19.