The Watts Towers are yet another one of the pieces of the immigrant puzzle that fits together to tell the story of the birth and history of California.
The construction of the towers which are today classified as a National Historic Landmark, a Historic Park of the State of California, and a Historic-Cultural monument began in the year 1921. Italian immigrant and construction worker, Simon Rodia, had a vision for an abstract work of art that he named “Nuestro Pueblo” (our town). Given the drive and indomitable spirit that California sold to its settlers, he set out to accomplish his mission in a land of imagined “adventure” and “possibility.” He purchased a plot of land on 107th street and set to work on his 34 year endeavor, constructed of structural steel, mortar, shells, 20th century American pottery and ceramics, and stained glass. The completion of his project was no small feet, for each tower, one of which was ninety-nine and a half feet tall, was completed using only simple tools and hand craftsmanship. His desire to keep his artwork untainted by machines reflected the movement and desires of Americans at this time as they fled to California to escape the industrial cities for a land of a simpler, but somehow more glamorous, existence.
In 1959, the towers were sold for $3,000 to Bill Cartwright and Nick King who formed a coalition, The Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts, in order to prevent the destruction of Rodia’s masterpiece. The existence of these towers brought about economic investments and a sense of pride in the city of Watts where the citizens refused to allow the Department of Building and Safety to demolish the towers. Instead, Cartwright and King found a way to prove that the towers were sound through a stress and load test, and it was declared that these works of art, these pieces of history would remain intact and efforts would be made to preserve them with the passage of time.
In 1975, private ownership of the towers was ceded, and the city of Los Angeles took over the maintenance and regulation of these landmarks. Three years later, Rodia’s towers were deeded to the state of California.
The Watts towers still stand today as a reminder of the true history of California. California was not built by Americans, but rather immigrants from Spain, Mexico, China, and Italy. It’s true history tells a story of diversity, even if it’s imagined history does not.