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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.