The Watts Towers are one of LA’s most famous landmarks. The sculptures were handmade by an Italian immigrant, Simon Rodia, from 1921 until 1954.

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He worked by day at a tile-making factory in Malibu. And on evenings and weekends, he cobbled together scavenged steel, tied together with wire, covered with cement, and encrusted with bits of glass, tile and seashell. He built the towers without scaffolding or a team of workers.

One of the sensors placed at Watts Towers by UCLA engineers.

One of the sensors placed at Watts Towers by UCLA engineers.

The city of LA tried to have them torn down. But while the city couldn’t get rid of them, the elements – heat, wind, and rain – are slowly taking their toll.

LACMA senior scientist Frank Preusser, left, and UCLA School of Engineering Professor Ertugrul Taciroglu.

LACMA senior scientist Frank Preusser, left, and UCLA School of Engineering Professor Ertugrul Taciroglu.

After Simon Rodia left in 1955, the property changed hands several times. One owner wanted to build a taco stand and give tours to customers. But when he found out the city wanted to tear the towers down, he sold them to two unsuspecting former art students at USC, Bill Cartwright and Nicholas King, who wanted to build an art center there. They recruited Bud Goldstone, an aeronautical engineer who had met Simon Rodia. He came up with a 10,000-pound load test, in which a truck-mounted crane would be attached via a steel cable to the center tower.

“He says, ‘if it cracks, if it crumbles, if it breaks in any way, shape, form or fashion, we’ll get out the way and let you tear it down, but if it doesn’t, can we keep it and you people leave us alone?’” said James Janisse, a tour guide at Watts Towers.

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The city agreed. The test was held in October of 1959, and the tower withstood the challenge – and even pulled over the truck-mounted crane. The towers have had their share of close calls since then. The Northridge earthquake in 1994 and a major hailstorm in 2002 led to significant repairs. In 2011, the LA County Museum of Art was brought in to look at long-term fixes to the cracks that plagued the towers, led by Frank Preusser, LACMA’s senior scientist. He says that flexibility helps the towers adjust to big outside forces like earthquakes and strong winds. But he was frustrated by how quickly the cracks re-appeared.

Professor Ertugrul Taciroglu from the UCLA School of Engineering won a grant from the National Science Foundation to connect a series of sensors to the towers that can detect the slightest changes in heat, wind and vibrations. There’s even a tilt meter that measures the towers leaning north as the sun comes up and heats the concrete, and settles back as the sun sets. Compounding the stress is that the towers are made of different types of cement, plus glass, tile – all reaching different temperatures, creating friction within the towers.

LACMA's Frank Preusser points to some pieces of the original, corroded steel framework of the towers.

LACMA’s Frank Preusser points to some pieces of the original, corroded steel framework of the towers.

“Whatever we learn here, and whatever approaches we are able to develop as a solution to slow down deterioration – we will never be able to stop it but we can slow it down – will be very useful to all the other outsider art sites in the states and elsewhere,” Preusser said.

More remnants from fallen bits of the Watts Towers. Photos by Avishay Artsy.

More remnants from fallen bits of the Watts Towers. Photos by Avishay Artsy.

The research being done by LACMA and UCLA is expected to be finished early next year. In the months ahead they’ll continue monitoring the slightest changes, for a sign of how the towers will hold up decades from now.

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6 Comments »

  • Joshua said:

    hell yeah the Watts Towers should be saved forever

  • drkgoddess said:

    I used to play in them in the 50's when I was going to Markham Jr. High!!!

  • Michelina said:

    Nice website, Keep bring us great information, because I for one definitely appreciate it.

  • opaler said:

    Simon Rodia was a truly gifted engineer judging by the durability of the Watts Towers. I find it amazing that he was able to build one of LA’s most famous landmarks without modern tools like the ones from http://www.usweldingsupply.com/rod-ovens.html, without scaffolding or a team of workers.. The sculptures are also beautiful and iconic and deserve to be preserved.

  • opaler said:

    I want to go visit Watts Tower and googling about the area is making me a little worried, reading phrases like "the worst street in Compton". The reviews on how to find Kansas City commercial real estate with huntmidwest.com seem pretty positive, but when I google about the area in general I find a lot of posts about making sure you don't wear gang colors.

  • ralet said:

    The story of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles is absolutely fascinating. I still can't believe Simon Rodia built them out of what was basically garbage in his free time over the course of more than 30 years, without the help you could find here, without a team of workers or scaffolding.

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