Unless you’ve already heard of the Watts towers, you most likely wouldn’t expect to find a famous sculptural work in the middle of Watts. In fact, The Family Savvy’s journey to the towers involved plenty of thoughts like “we must have taken a wrong turn” and “I don’t think we’re in the right place”. But all you have to do is follow your GPS as it leads you down a very unassuming side street and towards the smallest site in California’s park system.
Architect Simon Rodia (colloquially known as Sam) constructed a total of seventeen towers, with the tallest reaching up almost 100 feet. Even so, you’ll have a hard time trying to catch a glimpse of them before you arrive, as most of even the tallest towers are blocked by the surrounding homes that make up the neighborhood.
Once you arrive, simply look for a spot on the street and head into the Watts Towers Arts Center located just across a grassy lawn from the towers themselves. Here, you can look through a collection of Charles H. Tatum’s African inspired art, watch a short documentary on the construction of the towers, and pay for a tour (just $7). Tours are half an hour and run Thursday-Sunday. Check out the website for a list of times.
The one thing that may be lacking in the Watts Towers surroundings is a good lunch spot. If Watts isn’t quite in your neck of the woods, we suggest bringing some snacks or even a picnic to enjoy on the grass next to the towers. Especially during the summer, the weather is fabulous; ample sunshine and usually a nice breeze go great with some sandwiches and lemonade.
If you do take a tour, your guide will most likely tell you that Rodia “annoyed his neighbors” during construction. He worked in a tile factory during the day, and was known to work until late into the night by the light of lamps he strung up around his property. He was estranged from his family and children before moving to Watts, and thus had a good amount of time to devote to his masterpiece (when he wasn’t working). The towers were widely regarded as junk by the city of Los Angeles before The Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts started petitioning in 1959 to save them from demolition.
Besides the fact that the property itself has had multiple owners throughout the years, the towers were also put to a stress test in 1959 to ensure that they were stable. Despite only having the equivalent of a third or fourth grade education, Rodia was sure to construct his masterpiece using a solid base for longevity. In 2010, LACMA partnered with the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs to help develop and maintain the Watts Towers, especially by monitoring cracks in the structure that have developed over the years.
If the available tour days or times don’t work for you and your family, large panels mounted outside the gates of the structure will provide you with enough information for a self-guided tour. Just be aware that you can’t actually get inside the gates unless you take an official tour. Either way, you’ll find out plenty of fun facts about the Watts towers. For example, Rodia built the towers in just under 34 years and without the use of a ladder. The documentary shows footage of Rodia climbing up the lower portions of the towers as he added on to the top. Another interesting tidbit: by the end of his life, Rodia didn’t have fingerprints because of the materials he worked with to build the towers.
The Watts Towers Arts Center also offers art workshops and classes. During the last weekend of September, the towers will be the site of a 37th annual jazz festival that is said to be the only one of it’s kind in Los Angeles. Also be on the lookout for fun pamphlets inside the Arts Center with project ideas, gardening and cooking how-to’s, and a coloring book. For just $1, you can purchase a “study guide” about Tatum, Rodia, and their art.