TAAGLAA: The Watts Towers

Story by Zoe Chen
Staff Writer and Staff Photographer

Photo by Shin-Hye (Rachel) Choi
Staff Photographer

The Watts Towers are a sight to behold. Cone-shaped structures of varying heights — the tallest standing at almost 100 feet tall — spiral towards the sky like dropped ice cream cones in the community of Watts, Los Angeles. Each tower is mostly hollow, constructed only of a spiraling gridlike frame of steel bars and little else. The framework is smothered in a layer of mortar, creating a rough but finished look. 

The most unique aspects of the towers, however, are the hundreds of thousands of tiny colorful objects pressed into the mortar — objects dubbed as “found junk.” The abstract mosaics make the towers glitter every color in the sunlight; black and white photos cannot do this effect justice. The sight was incomparable to anything I had seen before. 

Simon Rodia architected the towers in the early 1900s. An Italian immigrant, he arrived in the community of Watts in 1894 at age 15. Later, at 42 years old, he purchased an odd-shaped triangular plot of land and began his masterpiece, which would take him 33 years to complete. 

Watts was a predominantly Black neighborhood in the early 40s, and the towers served as a mark of pride for the impoverished neighborhood. Riots in 1965 destroyed much of the surrounding landscape, but the towers remained mainly untouched. In 1990, the towers were designated as a U.S. National Historic Landmark; only about 2600 total structures have been designated as such. 

The drive from South Pasadena to Watts took about half an hour on the bright Saturday morning that Rachel and I had chosen to go. I looked around as our car pulled off of Interstate 105, thinking that hundred-foot towers would be easy to spot from a few blocks away. As it turns out, thin and hollow towers covered in gray cement are extremely hard to see in the midst of cluttered urban houses, palm trees, and cars. 

We wove through residential streets, nearing the location of the towers. I finally got a glimpse of the top of the tallest tower when we were about two blocks away. As we turned a corner and the bushy trees slid out of the way, the full towers came into view. 

The towers were definitely tall. But, I have to say, when you’ve grown up in Los Angeles surrounded by skyscrapers that are tall enough to block out the sun, the Watts Towers do not seem quite as imposing as they have been described on travel websites. Still, the Watts Towers are the world’s largest single construction created by one individual and are certainly impressive, even if not so imposing. I stood and stared up at the towers for long enough that my neck began to ache. 

The word “towers” may be slightly misleading. The name implies, at least in my mind, something like Rapunzel’s tower or Tower Bridge; a building with walls and an empty interior that one can climb up into. The Watts Towers are not that. 

I would instead describe the Watts Towers as a collection of “spires,” which I think of as smaller, more decorative, and less functional than a tower. The interior of each Watts structure was filled with supports, reminding me of an orderly set of laser tag beams. 

The Watts Towers website talked of 17 major structures. As I counted from the ground, there were three spires that I was willing to categorize as “major,” each between 80 and 100 feet tall. Nine more spires ranged from 20 to 50 feet and were mere rods that rose from the ground with decorative peaks. Comparatively, the other five structures that the website had talked of were small enough to be missed, only about 10 feet tall with little decoration. 

The three major towers seemed to each have a different architectural theme, with one’s supports orderly and gridlike and another’s wild and bubbly. All of the structures were interconnected by a domed, branching inner set of supports about 10 feet off the ground. With a paid tour, one can walk under these supports and look up at the interior supports of the towers. 

The mosaics on the towers were truly stunning. They were a different style of mosaic than the perfectly polished and square-cut stones that depict realistic images. The towers’ tiles were an expansive assortment of items, including but not limited to broken bottles, pottery vases, smooth rocks, rough rocks, seashells, teacups, china plates, bowls, and a lone 7 Up bottle. Color palettes for sections of mosaic seemed to be chosen semi-randomly, some following a certain scheme and others an explosion of clashing colors. 

The triangular-shaped plot of land that the towers stand on is in the midst of a grassy park. A small cement amphitheater within the park featured a timeline carved into the ground that detailed Watts’ history. 

Despite their location in a little-known residential area, the towers have stood at the heart of social and economic movements that call for equality. They remain an important symbol of originality, innovation, and freedom for African-American and Latino communities, and their well-known effects on history attract many to the site each year. 

Rachel and I stayed for about 45 minutes, simply walking around the base of the towers as she took pictures and I scribbled down notes. The area was calm and quite peaceful, save for the occasional airplane flyover and train going by. The neighborhood seemed to be waking up as we left, dogs barking and cars honking as we drove out of the city and back to South Pasadena.

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