Special Issue #150
Sabato Rodia (1879–1965), artist, was born 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. 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. 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. 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.
Sabato Rodia has been referred to as a Visionary and a man of great passion. A self-taught laborer from Italy, he had a singular goal in life: “I had in my mind I’m gonna do something, something big.” He made his living as a cement worker and tile setter on construction jobs by day. He began his towers in 1921, working by himself on evenings, weekends and holidays for the next 34 years. When Rodia stopped work on the towers in 1954, he named them “Nuestro Pueblo.” Italian for “Our Town” this phrase is spelled out in glass pieces and was also scribed directly into the mortar.
A native of Ribottoli, Italy, Sabato Rodia was born on February 12, 1879, into a farming family. It’s likely they visited the nearby village of Nola, where he would have witnessed a unique celebration called Gigli Festival, held there since the late Middle Ages. The Gigli Festival is an annual religious festival held in Nola, Italy, historically celebrating the return of a well-loved bishop after his travels. Organized by craft guilds, the festival featured a procession of tall, pointed towers made of wooden rings covered with paper and carried through the town on the shoulders of the village men. The Watts Towers resemble the icons used in the festival so closely that they considered the likely inspiration for his work.
At age 15, Sabato was sent to Pennsylvania to work in the coal mines with his brother. When his brother died in a mining accident, he left to find work as a traveling construction worker. At age 23, he settled in Seattle, Washington, and married Lucia Ucci with whom he had three children. In 1905 Rodia moved his family to Oakland, California, where he made a comfortable living and saved enough money to bring his sister and her family from Pennsylvania, settling them in nearby Martinez. In 1912 Rodia’s marriage collapsed. He divorced his wife and left his family, never to make contact with them again. He began a new life as a roving day laborer that lasted until 1921 when he bought a house on a triangle-shaped lot in the working-class neighborhood of Watts. At the age of 42, Sabato Rodia began building the structures that evolved into his towers.
Rodia built each tower by digging a shallow trench, filling it with cement and embedding four upright metal columns. When the mortar was set, he covered the upright steel with wire mesh and his cement mortar mixture. He used a variety of recycled materials to reinforce his constructions, working this metal using the railroad tracks near his property to bend it into the desired shape. For stability he built more than 150 flying buttresses, which are support beams attached to the side of a structure that help distribute the weight evenly to the ground. As the towers grew, Rodia made rungs encircling each set of support beams, attaching them with wire mesh and mortar to solidify the joints. When each rung had dried, he used it ladder-fashion to climb and attach another rung, each getting smaller in diameter towards the top. Rodia repeated this until the tower was finished at a narrow point. The mosaic technique Rodia used is referred to as pique assiette; he undoubtedly saw examples of this mosaic technique in his native Italy. Decorations applied by embedding carefully chosen shards and objects into the drying mortar during the building process.
The Towers comprise seventeen structures decorated with approximately 100,000 ornamental fragments. Rodia used a variety of materials and objects for decorative purposes including: 11,000 pottery shards, 10,000 seashells, 6,000 pieces of colored glass, and 15,000 glazed tiles. He used objects such as tools, faucet handles, heating grates, gears and metal molds to make decorative imprints on the walls and floors. He also recycled many different types of china fragments, broken mirror pieces, small china figurines, hundreds of rocks, and a variety of other materials. Rodia’s creativity in using discarded and found objects for ornamentation is one of the Tower’s most remarkable aspects.
“I had in my mind I’am gonna do something, something big.” When Rodia started his project he was forty-two. For the next thirty-four years he worked determinedly, ending his endeavor in 1954 at age seventy-five. Without any apparent reason, Rodia left Watts forever in 1954, deeding the property to his neighbor, Louis Sauceda. The remaining years of his life were spent in a boarding house near his sister in Martinez, California, where he talked about his work to anyone who would listen. Sabato Rodia died of a heart attack in 1965, without ever seeing his Towers again.
The Tower’s chain of ownership became complex after Rodia left. The recipient of Rodia’s gift, Louis Sauceda, sold the property to his neighbor, Joseph Montoya, for $500. Under Montoya’s indifferent stewardship the Towers were vandalized, and in 1956 Rodia’s house burned. In 1957 an order was issued to demolish the remains of the house and raze the Towers. Failure to locate Montoya over the next two years prevented the order from being executed. In 1959 William Cartwright and Nicholas King discovered the Towers and became determined to preserve them. They located Montoya and bought the property from him for $20, with a promise to pay more. Hoping to improve the property, they applied for a permit to build a caretaker’s house on the sire but were stopped by the earlier demolition order. To save the Towers, Cartwright and King founded the “Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts,” with the initial goal of having the demolition order cancelled. To prove the Tower’s were stable, a stress test was devised that involved subjecting the tallest Tower to 10,000 pounds of pressure in an effort to topple it. It passed the test and the demolition order was withdrawn.
In 1963 Watts Towers became the fifteenth Historic-Cultural Monument to be designated by the City of Los Angeles. The Towers are also on the National Register of Historic Places. The Watts Towers passed from private to public ownership in 1975 when the “Committee for Simo Rodia’s Towers in Watts” gave them to the City of Los Angeles. In 1978 the City turned them over to California State Parks who then negotiated an operating agreement with the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs to manage the conservation and tour program. The property was officially designated: Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park. In 1990 Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park was accorded National Historic Landmark status.