Living LA History: A Guide to Watts Towers

Whether a denizen of LA for days or a decade, you’ve likely seen photos of the wiry spires known as Watts Towers. But what are they?  An art installation left over from the last Olympics?  Radio transmitters?  A reminder of LA’s racial tensions in the 1960s?  Kids often look at the colorful structures and think it’s a giant jungle gym.  Actually, it’s none of the above.  Watts Towers prevail as one man’s dedication to a dream and a city’s acknowledgement of his creativity and resourcefulness.  Part art, part history, part culture, it’s a fascinating outing that will feed young (and old) imaginations and inspire everyone to dream big.

Watts Towers_entrance

We’re off to see the Towers, the wonderful Towers of Watts
No cyclone necessary – the Watts Towers are easily accessible off the 110 and 105 freeways; even better, take Metrorail for an urban adventure.  Connect Downtown at 7th/Metro Center for the Blue Line, exit at 103rd Street/Watts Towers for a half-mile walk to the Arts Center.  Note to those with strollers:  parts of the sidewalks may be missing so the road could be a bit bumpy.
Watts Towers_address

So, it’s not a jungle gym?
Nope, no climbing allowed.  A gated fence surrounds the Towers of Simon Rodia to preserve what is now a National Historic Landmark.  You can come and gaze anytime.  Or get a closer look inside with a guided tour, offered first-come, first-served Thursday-Sunday afternoons.  The volunteer docents are super-dedicated and well-informed admirers of the artist’s work, happy to address questions about him and his achievement.  Tours request a $7 donation, with reduced rates for seniors (grandparents will love it!) and teens, and free for kiddos under 12.

Watts Towers_ladder

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It’s the story of a man named Rodia, who was busy with tiles of his own…
An Italian immigrant and construction worker dedicated over 30 years of his life to building the ethereal sculptures, Simon Rodia never talked about his project, then abandoned the completed towers and the deed to his property.   He worked alone to construct 17 interconnected towers in the backyard of his small home (the remains of the house are also on the grounds).

Because it’s made of glass and tile, it’s not for touching or climbing at all – so keep an eye on those exploring toddlers!  But everyone can examine the intricate and whimsical designs Rodia created from found objects such as discarded glass bottles, broken tiles and seashells.  Talk about something from nothing.  Using no special equipment, he used whatever he collected to decorate the armatures constructed of steel pipes and rods, wrapped in mesh and coated in mortar.  The sum of the parts is even more magnificent.

A visit to the Towers in the early afternoon can inspire a perfect late afternoon art project – what can you make with objects you’re ready to recycle?  A broken toy, old wire hangers and some rocks or shells are the exact same materials that Rodia worked with – what can you and your kids create?

Watts Towers_hispstamatic

There is art around the art.
Once you’ve finished gazing (and photographing, and talking about) the Towers, stay and explore some more art.  The Watts Towers Arts Center is adjacent to the gated area.  Complimentary admission to the Arts Center and its small art gallery includes a 12-minute historical documentary featuring Rodia’s own voice and footage of him at work.  Then little ones will enjoy the green park surrounding the Towers, which includes picnic tables and a small play structure (this one you can definitely touch!).

And music too!
There’s a yearly family celebration during the last weekend of September, with a Drum Festival on Saturday and Jazz Festival on Sunday.   Open 10:00 am to 5:00 pm each day, the free festivals boast live music and dancing, yummy ethnic food and crafts for kiddies, plus valet parking.  Check out full details on the Watts Towers website.

Watts Towers_side
Insider’s tip: An easy stroll from the Blue Line, Watts Coffee House serves up comfort-food faves with a Southern twist.  Sample a sweet biscuit before or after your sojourn to the Watts Towers.

Watts Towers Arts Center
1727 East 107th St.
Los Angeles
Phone: (213) 847-4646
Tours are every half hour Thursday-Saturday 10:30 am – 3:00 pm, Sunday 12:30 pm – 3:00 pm

– Kim Orchen Cooper

What LA landmark do you love? And which is still on your “I can’t believe I still haven’t been there” list?

Photos courtesy of the author.


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