The Simon Rodia State Historic Park is located at 1765 E. 107 Street in Los Angeles, California.
The park’s centerpiece, aka Watt’s Towers, are the steel-reinforced tall columns tied with wire, covered in concrete and embedded with mirrors, seashells, glass, rocks, ceramic tile, pottery and marble.
Simone Rodia, born near Nola, Province of Avellino, in Campania, was a pioneer recycler, for his beautiful blue bits of embedded glass were the bottoms of blue Phillips Milk of Magnesia bottles and the glistening green glass were 7-up soda salvage.
It is said that Simone’s fascination with tall towers may have begun when his parents took him to Nola, where men carrying 65-foot high, hand-sculpted towers on their shoulders, annually honored San Paolino di Nola and his heroic act of sacrifice in the ancient city of Nola, in the year 409 A.D.
Incidentally, if you can’t make it to Nola, Italy , for the Festa of San Paolino, track down a copy of filmmaker, composer, songwriter, directory Tony De Nonno’s film “Heaven Touches Brooklyn in July”, TDENONNO@aol.com or (917) 304-6610. The film will give you a good idea of what may have inspired a young Simone Rodia, or today’s young Broolynites.
Imagine 125 men carrying a five-ton, five-story, hand-sculpted tower and a 12-piece brass band- on their shoulders- dancing it through their neighborhood in tempo to joyous Italian folk songs! For 300 years in Italy, and the past century in communities throughout the greater New York area, this glorious ritual known as “The Dance of the Giglio” has been celebrated each summer with unbridled passion and devotion.
Back in the 1980’s the Federated Italo-Americans of Southern California and other Italo-American groups in California donated funds for Watts Towers restoration efforts and also helped finance a documentary film on the life of Simon Rodia.
Through the years, perhaps because of the Towers location, Simon Rodia’s art fell off our Italo-American radar, but recently, while watching Huell Howser’s California Gold (Watts Tour Program #109) on T.V., I was delighted to see close up what a magnificent piece of art, full of hearts and flowers Simon Rodia’s hands had single-handedly wrought.
I suggest you consider giving Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park a visit. The adjacent Watts Towers Arts Center provides guided tours of the towers and presents rotating exhibits in the Noah Purifoy Gallery. Hours: Arts Center open Tues.-Sat. 10-4. Sun. 12:30-4. Guided tours of the towers are offered Thurs.-Sat. 10;30-3. Cost: Park and arts center free. Guided tours $7, $3 (ages 13-17 and 62+). Phone: (213) 847-4646.
The Watts Towers Art Center had a film they projected for interested groups during early fund raising efforts. The film showed Simon Rodia at work, speaking in heavily accented English or busy collecting, even along railroad tracks, most of the material he used to construct and adorn his massive work. “I gotta do something big”, he says in the film, his slight frame topped by a hat to shade him from the hot rays of the Southern California’s sun.
“How can you work all alone?” he was often asked by curious neighbors as his work began to rise to the sky of Watts. “In the first place, he always repeated, I gotta no money to pay someone to help, but then even if I getta somebody I don’t know what to hell him to do since I don’t know what to do myself”. Amazingly, before restoration efforts began, stress tests were conducted on the towers by engineers associated with the Apollo Design team of North American Aviation’s space and Information Systems Division of Los Angeles who pronounced the towers strong and stable.
Historical researchers wondered why a man like Simon Rodia, would work incessantly for 33 years to build something as awesome as the towers and how this simple and unsophisticated man could build something so beautiful and structurally sound all by himself. Simone Rodia began his staggering project at age 40 then left it abruptly to a neighbor at age 73. Some suggest that Rodia artistic vision was inspired by his childhood visits to the nearby city of Nola and that he was trying to duplicate the patronal feast of the lilies (la festa dei gigli) that features the same concept that Rodia displays in his work at Watts.
Simon Rodia was born in a little town called Rivotoli, in the province of Avellino, and was only 12 years old, a very impressionable age, when he came to America. It is entirely possible that the little boy had been taken to the city of Nola to see “La festa di San Paolino”, with its decorative moveable towers, famous in the whole Campania Region, and in later years, filled with artistic vision and enthusiasm began to reconstruct it at age forty at the corner of his small lot with a house he had purchased in Watts.
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As I watched the Watts Tour, California Gold Program (www.calgold.com) host Huell Howser mentioned that they would be heading toward the stern. Many things about Rodia’s work, including: the boat that follows the gigantic towers (the lilies) seems to artistically reflect a connection with the legend of St. Paolino. Simon Rodia did not have any formal art training but visitors to the towers are awestruck by the work of art created by this extraordinary artisan.
Simon Rodia’s project seems to have been blessed by a higher power. How else can one explain the superb architecture of the structure, the symmetrical lines of the gazebo, the boat, and the lines of the three towers that soar majestically in the sky? It is an amazing feat indeed, and one that has stood the test of time, as well as one that the critics have called the greatest structure ever made by one man without aid, a gigantic work of folk art and a monument to human energy, consistency and skill.
That it was made by an immigrant who had held jobs in quarries, railroad camps, construction work, as tile setter and night watchman in Los Angeles, is even more astounding. Simon Rodia may have been lacking in formal education and had a limited amount of sophistication but his work itself demonstrates a creativity that denotes the work of patient, laboring, elaborate man whose only preoccupation was to build and then leave an art treasure.
He collected more than 70,000 seashells, salvaged endless tiles, broken bottles and dismantled pipe structures. He bent reinforcing rods under the nearby railroad tracks worked with no drawing board designs, no machine equipment, scaffolding, bolts, rivets or welds. He only used a tile setters simple tools, a window washer’s belt and bucket, and the knowledge he had accumulated through the years, to arrive at his artistic intent.