April 15, 2011

The Colossus of Watts: Sam Rodia – Designer and Builder of the Watts Towers

Sabato “Sam” Rodia
By Niccolò Graffio
“Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them.” 
– Lyof N. Tolstoy: What is Art?, 1898
When I was a teenager my father would take us every summer down south to places like South Carolina and Florida. On one of those trips we visited Coral Castle, a sprawling stone structure located just north of the city of Homestead, Florida in Miami-Dade County. 

Coral Castle is a remarkable edifice consisting of hundreds of tons of oolitic limestone that have been shaped into furniture, walls, carvings and a castle tower. The largest of these stones weighs 30 tons. What makes Coral Castle all the more incredible is the fact the entire structure was apparently built by only one man, an eccentric Latvian immigrant by the name of Edward Leedskalnin! The methods Leedskalnin used in building Coral Castle are shrouded in mystery. When questioned he always gave polite but evasive answers. Though some claim to have figured out how he did it, to this day it remains a mystery. If you ever travel down to Miami-Dade County, Florida it’s worth a trip to see Coral Castle.

While certainly it’s worth pondering how he did it, I’m one of those who wonder exactly why he did it! According to one account, when he still lived in his native Latvia he was jilted by his 16-y.o. fiancée the night before their wedding. The story goes he was driven to build Coral Castle in honor of her. Many (myself included) would think she did not deserve such an honor, and would question the sanity of a man who would devote over 28 years of his life to such an endeavor. Yet it’s also worth remembering that whatever his motives, he left us with an astounding structure that’s still admired to this day. He was neither the first or last eccentric to do so.

Sabato Rodia was born in the region of Campania, Italy. Like Leedskalnin, the events of his childhood are not known with certainty. The official website of the Watts Towers gives his birthday as February 12th, 1879 in the town of Serino, Italy in a section called Ribottoli. However, the Social Security Death Index lists it as April 15th, 1886.

According to Giovanni Cecchetti, Prof. Emeritus of Italian Literature at U.C.L.A., though Southern Italy at that time was the poorest and most exploited place in Europe, Rodia’s parents weren’t really that poor. He makes this assessment on the fact Rodia was born in a two-story dwelling. Rodia’s parents also owned a fairly large tract of land where they grew (according to Rodia) crops such as potatoes, wheat, corn, apricots, peaches, pears and apples. If this was true, far from being dirt-poor, his family was fairly prosperous. In Russia, they would have been called kulaks.

In interviews given later in his life, Sabato Rodia claimed his parents sent him to America because of a downturn in economic conditions back in Italy. Relatives here in the states, however, state that he came here to avoid conscription in the Italian Army.

A certain contention exists over what he was called during his lifetime. Some claim he was called “Simon”. It is known that people close to him called him “Sam” and that is how will be addressed for the remainder of this article.

Sam followed his brother Ricardo to America when the former was about 15. Here again, is uncertainty. The most common story is that Sam worked with his brother in the coalfields of Pennsylvania until the latter was killed in a mining accident, at which point Sam headed westward. However, an analysis of census records from 1900 show the only “Sam” Rodia was one of three bachelor brothers who lived and worked together as barbers in Philadelphia.

It is known that Sam eventually headed west to Seattle, Washington where he met and married one Lucia Ucci in 1902. They later moved to San Francisco where they eventually had three children, two boys and a girl (Frank, Alfred and Belle Alvira). In 1906 Sam sent for his sister Angelina and her husband, Sam Calicura. According to relatives, Sam shortly afterwards had a falling out with his brother-in-law over the latter’s abuse of Angelina.

Ironically, by his own admission, Sam himself was a poor husband and father who took to strong drink. Lucia sued him for divorce in 1912, charging him with cruelty and abandonment. Tragically, not too long after their divorce, Belle Alvira died of spinal meningitis.

His activities after this for the next decade are in dispute. He claims he traveled extensively to places like Canada, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Argentina. In an interview, however, a nephew expressed doubts about such claims. 

By 1920 census records show a Sam Rodia living in Long Beach, CA with a Mexican wife named “Benita” and working as a cement finisher. Sometime after this, he broke up with Benita, took up with another Mexican woman named Carmen and moved to a small cottage on a triangular-shaped lot located at 1765 East 107th street in Watts, a mostly residential area now located in South Los Angeles. At the time Sam moved here Watts was a diverse city of Whites, Jews, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, with some Asians also in the mix. The socio-economic status of its inhabitants was mainly working class poor, with a large percentage of the population being railroad workers.

It was here in 1921 that Sam Rodia began construction of his towers. He worked alone using hand tools and window washer’s equipment. The towers are constructed of steel pipe overlaid with wire mesh, fastened by copper wire and coated with mortar. The towers were constructed with no predetermined design; Rodia simply improvised as he went along. Art experts who examined the towers, though, state he most certainly was inspired by church spires and gigli, the large, hand-sculptured towers used during religious processions in his native Campania.

Watts Towers (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
He embedded the main supports of the towers with found objects such as bottles, ceramic tiles, sea shells and even bed frames. Sometimes he used objects neighborhood children found and brought to him, but he mainly relied on damaged material he acquired from Malibu Pottery or CALCO (California Clay Products Company), both of which were located nearby. In all the time he worked on his creation, he never once used a scaffold. Instead, he built a stepladder into the lattice of his towers, allowing him to scale them when needed. 

It took Sam over 33 years, working part-time, to construct his towers. The finished edifice is a series of 17 interconnecting structures; the two largest of which are each over 99 feet in height. The West Tower contains the longest reinforced concrete columns in the world. Incredibly, it’s set in a foundation of only 14 inches of concrete! Rodia later claimed his reason for constructing the towers was to give people something to admire. He wished to express gratitude to his adopted country by building an art object. He named his towers Nuestro Pueblo (Sp: Our Town).

Though Rodia referred to his creation as a “town”, but according to many who have studied the site, it actually more closely resembles a large boat! Their contention is based on the fact the panel palisade conspicuously resembles a sharp-pointed prow while the towers look like masts. Another structure is said to resemble a lifeboat. Nautical references and symbols are also interspersed throughout the structure. 

While Sam was building his towers, the demographics of Watts changed considerably. By the 1940s Watts had become predominantly black as tens of thousands of them left Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas in what came to be known as the Second Great Migration. These peoples left these states for California to escape racial segregation and to seek better job opportunities.

Arriving in Watts in waves, they supplanted most of the previous residents. Sam’s new neighbors viewed him and his towers as oddities. He, in turn, did not get along with many of them. The fact a number of them actively encouraged their children to vandalize his towers did not help matters, either. During World War 2 many people also believed Rodia’s towers were being used to beam “secret messages” to the Japanese, which further added to the vandalism.

During the war the city also built a number of housing projects which added to the “White flight” from Watts. After the war the industry which had provided employment for many of Watts’ residents disappeared and the area quickly became a ghetto.

Why exactly Sam Rodia ceased work on his towers in 1954 is not clearly known. He later claimed it was because he tired of the incessant vandalism by his neighbors. However, others claim he suffered a mild stroke. Whatever the reason, in that year he deeded the property to a neighbor; a milker named Montoya. Sam then moved to Martinez, CA to be close to his family. It is believed he never returned to Watts. Montoya in turn sold the property to Bill Cartwright, a film editor who wished to preserve the towers as they were now attracting interest in L.A.’s art community. Three years after leaving Watts, a fire destroyed his cottage located inside the tower superstructure.

Problems arose when the City of Los Angeles wished to condemn the towers as a dangerous eyesore. By this time residents of Watts, perhaps cognizant of the fact the towers were really the only thing about the area worth visiting, marshaled in an attempt to save them. The City agreed to spare them if they could pass a “stress test”, basically a large truck with a crane mounted on the back would try to pull down the towers. Not only did the truck fail, but the truck and crane were themselves almost completely lifted off the ground by the towers during the test! The towers were saved!

Watts Towers (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The towers were now attracting notice, not only statewide, but nationwide as well. Interest in them swelled when it was discovered their creator was still alive and living in Martinez, CA. Initial efforts to cajole him into coming into the limelight failed as he really had no desire for media attention. In fact, he surprised many people when he told them he no longer had any interest in the towers and didn’t care what happened to them!

Eventually, though, persistence won out. Sam came out of “retirement” to address over 200 luminaries of Los Angeles in that city’s Museum of Art, to thunderous applause! Again, though, incredibly, the accolades heaped upon him by members of California’s art community seemed to matter little to him. He returned to Martinez where he lived out the remainder of his life in quiet obscurity.

In early 1965 he apparently suffered another stroke and was rushed to the hospital. Never fully recovering, he was transferred to Alhambra Convalescent Hospital where workers said his irascible personality and unpredictable behavior (he was said to be fond of going for long walks off hospital grounds unannounced) made him a difficult patient. 

In early July of that year one of the nurses in charge of him went on vacation to Los Angeles. While there she visited the Watts Towers. Upon returning and spotting Rodia, she pointed him out to other staffers and loudly announced they had a celebrity in their midst. Sam Rodia was, in fact, a great artist! Witnesses claimed that after hearing this, a large smile appeared on his face. Sam Rodia, the sociable, if eccentric, immigrant sculptor from Campania, had apparently finally achieved his heartfelt desire – the approbation of those he considered his peers. Two days later, on July 16, 1965, he breathed his last.

His fame as well as his towers have endured long after his demise. Less than a month after his death, on August 11th, Watts exploded during the infamous Watts Riots. Interestingly, the towers were left untouched. In 1967 the Beatles put a picture of him on the cover of their album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. You can see him peeking shyly over the shoulder of Bob Dylan in the upper right-hand corner of the album. 

In 1975 the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts deeded them to the City of Los Angeles. Three years later the city, in turn, deeded them to the State of California. 

In early 1983 the noted American engineer, author, designer, inventor and futurist Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller inspected the Watts Towers. In April of that year, just three months before his own death, he consented to a 40-minute interview with the producers of I Build the Tower, a documentary on the life of Sam Rodia and his towers. Bits of the interview are interspersed throughout the documentary. I have watched both. It is hard to miss the admiration Mr. Fuller had for Sam Rodia and the abject awe he held for his creation. Fuller went so far as to predict that Sam Rodia would eventually be remembered, not only as one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th century, but of all time!

Of special interest to me was Fuller’s claim Rodia had instinctively deduced things about structural principles found in nature and then incorporated them into his towers’ design; things one normally only learns as part of an advanced education. If true, Sam Rodia must have been innately a very intelligent man. What a pity he was never given the opportunity to go to school to fully exploit that intelligence. One can only speculate what he then might have been able to create.

In 282 BC one Chares of Lindos constructed a huge bronze statue of the sun god Helios on the island of Rhodes to commemorate that island’s victory over the invading forces of Demetrius I of Macedon in 305 BC. That statue, dubbed the Colossus of Rhodes, was hailed by the Greek historian Herodotus as one of the Seven Wonders of the World of his time. It was eventually destroyed by an earthquake in the year 226 BC. 

Sam Rodia’s colossus has thus far survived an earthquake, vandalism, a stress test and a windstorm. How long will it endure? No one knows. One thing I do know, however, is that his name will endure even after his towers are long gone. He now joins the ranks of Edward Leedskalnin (who by the way was only 5’ tall like him), Ferdinand Cheval, creator of Le Palais Idéal, and a host of other artistic eccentrics whose compulsions mystify the masses.

In truth, though, there is no real mystery as to why these people do these things. It has been said everyone secretly (or not so secretly, in some cases) desires to feel important. By creating colossal works of art the Rodias of this world wish to distract us long enough from the mundane tasks of our lives to make us realize they were here! We may deride them as eccentrics (or worse), but by stopping long enough to admire their creations we make them immortal, thus fulfilling their goal. When you stop and think about it, there really isn’t that much difference between them and established artists. Without them, life on this dreary ball of dirt would be a lot less bearable.

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