A History of Light – Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers

Summer/Fall 2007


A History of Light – Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers
by Kenneth Scambray

The Watts Towers is as much a story about Italians in Southern California as it is about Simon Rodia, the Italian immigrant who built them.

Baldassare Forestiere’s solitary life and Underground Gardens (see Accenti, Spring 2007) in many respects contrasted with the communal lives of Fresno Italians at the time. Rodia’s life and towers, on the other hand, more positively reflect the immigrant experience in Southern California and ultimately the experiences of most Italian immigrants throughout America at mid-century.

Though the immigrant assimilation process was often presented as problematic in the works of such Italian American writers as Pascal D’Angelo, Antonia Pola, Garibaldi Lapolla and Pietro Di Donato, western Italian American writers such as Angelo Pellegrini, Jo Pagano, and John Fante generally expressed hope and optimism in their works.

In Golden Wedding, Pagano’s characters are on a quest that takes them beyond the traditional concepts of the family and gender roles. As a Southern California writer, Pagano tells us that his characters’ experiences were “a part of that glittering, reckless world of the future, a world whose history was a history of light.” Rodia’s towers reflect the same optimistic spirit that Pagano expressed, including a very creative use of sunlight.

One of four children, Rodia was born in 1879 into a poor peasant family in Ribottoli, Campania, a village with few resources. Rodia followed an older brother in 1894 to Philadelphia, where he began his American odyssey. Over the next fifteen years he moved from northern California to the south-western United States and back to California, where in 1917 he settled in Long Beach.

In 1921 he relocated again when he bought a small house on 107th Street in the Watts section of Los Angeles, at the time a largely Mexican immigrant neighbourhood. Impetuous and difficult to get along with, he divorced his third and last wife shortly after moving to Watts. He was alone but not isolated in his community. After work each day at a Santa Monica tile factory, Rodia worked on his towers for the next thirty-four years.

Then one day, in 1955, having finished the towers, he simply abandoned them. He gave the property to a neighbour and disappeared. For many years, his whereabouts were unknown. He was even presumed dead. But in the early 1960s he was discovered alive and well in Martinez, California. He had lived just long enough to be recognized and honoured for his remarkable towers.

Rodia’s Los Angeles is characterized by capacious space and the omnipresence of sunlight. Light played a significant role in Rodia’s selection of materials for his towers and other sculptures. He travelled daily through neighbourhoods that often contained large open spaces between residential developments and commercial and industrial sites.

The houses were single-story bungalows that lined quiet, sunny streets. Before World War I, the motion picture industry moved from the northeast to Hollywood mainly because of the reliability of sunlight in which to do location shooting. In Golden Wedding, Pagano, a Hollywood screenwriter, used the phrase “history of light” in reference to the reason the motion picture industry moved from the East to Los Angeles. For the nickels it cost to see a movie in the 1920s and 30s, Hollywood’s films worked a similar kind of magic for immigrant Italians. They could see all those who had already “made America.” In both their detail and their extraordinary height, Rodia’s towers express his dream of success in America, as well as his recollection of his past.

Light and the abundance of space were central to the form and content of the towers. In 1921 Rodia purchased a house on a wedge-shaped lot with a spacious side yard, like most Southern California residential homes. The capacity to reflect light would be an important aspect of the materials he selected to festoon his seventeen different sculptures, including three towers standing between fifty-five and nearly one-hundred-feet tall. He collected fragments of glass, pop bottles, pottery, cups, plates, automobile glass, window glass, mirrors, bottoms of bottles, teapots and tiles, as well as seashells he gathered during his walks on Southern California beaches.

The tiles, whole and fragments, came from a variety of manufacturers in Southern California. He placed these in bins on the site and carefully selected the fragments for their placement. He kept a fire burning on the back of his property where he melted glass into free forms before he embedded them into the walls of his sculptures. He used household and industrial objects to press designs into his drying mortar, from the backs of ice cream parlour chairs, wire rug beaters, and faucet handles, to gears, iron gates, grills, baskets, and cooking utensils. He poured mortar into cast-iron corn bread bakers, removed the dried mortar, and inserted the panels into his sculptures. On other surfaces he inscribed freehand designs into his wet mortar. Into sections of his exterior wall, he pressed images of his tools – hammers, pliers, and files – signs of his immigrant working class values. 

But Rodia’s site is not just a random collection of junk. It is a controlled work created from the many carefully selected materials collected from his surroundings. As the Southern California light passes over the multicoloured surfaces of his sculptures during the day, it creates a polyphonic luminosity. The combination of freeform glass and tile fragments reflect the Southern California light in harmonic tones and shades. The elongated, arched buttresses that crisscross the site and that also form the round circles on the towers cast a network of changing shadows across the site. Like Southern California around it and like Rodia’s own life, the sculptures are not static. They change with the movement and intensity of the sun. Though made of reinforced concrete, the giant towers appear light and airy, more celestial than earth bound.

Just as important, many of the soft drink bottles are placed with their labels showing. The colourful fragments of the cups, saucers, tiles, plates, vases, and utensils are a cross section of the consumer life of the twenties and thirties. The objects that Rodia pressed into his sculptures have their identifiable sources in the community and industries that surrounded him in Southern California.

Nevertheless, his sculptures transcend the period in which they were constructed and leave an indelible record of an immigrant mind that went beyond the parochial and the mundane. R. Buckminster Fuller credited Rodia with making innovations in his structural engineering. But Fuller was quick to add that Rodia’s innovations were “intuitive” and not just technical. The towers are a masterpiece of “grassroots art” that have permanently captured a record of both the era and the immigrant experience.

While the towers are the creation of one man, they also express the recollections and hopes of generations of Italian immigrants in the New World. They are the paean of an Italian immigrant to both his past and his life in Southern California. Like Forestiere’s Underground Gardens, they express the psychological dislocating experience of immigration. But unlike Forestiere’s grottoes, Rodia’s towers provide a resolution to the problematic nature of the bicultural experience. Rodia collected the discards of modern America and organized them into a new form. At the same time, his construction, while it represents the present in its accumulation of contemporary artefacts, also recalls the past.

Folklorists I. Sheldon Posen and Daniel Ward have suggested that Rodia’s towers were based on the ceremonial gigli (lilies) annually paraded around the town of Nola, not far from his native village, in honour of the local patron saint, St. Paulinus. Each year around June 22, on the occasion of the feast honouring St. Paulinus, ceremonial gigli, towers that stand more than six stories high, and a ship are paraded around the streets of the town. The ceremony is referred to as the “Dance of the gigli.” The bearers of the gigli towers “dance” through the streets to the accompaniment of a lively brass band.

Since at least the sixteenth century, the “Dance of the gigli” feast was organized by Nola’s eight craft guilds. The gigli represent the guilds and the ship symbolizes the return of St. Paulinus after his and other villagers’ kidnapping, liberation, and return from captivity during the fifth century. The shape of Rodia’s towers, especially the central tower, and the ship he constructed are nearly identical copies of the ones carried through the streets of Nola. Rodia named his ship the Marco Polo after the great explorer who opened Western culture to a world beyond its borders.

If we look at the immigrant literature of the period, what motivated Rodia becomes as transparent as the iconography of his work. It is remarkable that one man built the towers without help from others or assistance from machinery. The Italian immigrants who flooded America at the turn of the century were little more than, in D’Angelo’s words, “pick and shovel” labourers. Even so, in spite of their hardships in the New World, like Pagano’s immigrants in Golden Wedding, they set out on another kind of voyage.

As Lapolla explains in the Grand Gennaro, once settled, immigrants worked with a vengeance to overcome their historical subaltern status in Italy and in America. Lapolla’s main character, the Grand Gennaro, pounds his chest and boasts, “I, I made America, and made it quick.” Lapolla writes, “If one said of himself that he had made America, he said it with an air of rough boasting, implying ‘I told you so’ or ‘Look at me.’”

It is often reported that Rodia wanted people to know how hard he had laboured. He never failed to point out that he built his towers alone. Rodia was quoted as saying, “I’m gonna do something…. This is a great country.” Once someone showed Rodia a picture of Antonio Gaudi’s Church of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Rodia asked, “Did he have helpers?” When he was told a crew of workers had built it, unimpressed, Rodia said, “I did it (the towers) myself.”

Rodia’s creation contrasts in important ways with Forestiere’s in Fresno. Though he owned considerable land in the San Joaquin Valley, Forestiere confined himself to a restricted space for his chambers. Though his one hundred grottoes underlie acres of land, spaciousness is not each individual room’s major characteristic. The visitor must duck at times to pass through a tunnel, and the majority of the rooms are little more than fifty to one hundred square feet.

Forestiere remained isolated underground as he focused on those recollections of his village life in Filari. His signature was the black smudges that his lantern left on the arches of his tunnels. While Forestiere’s grottoes are characterized by a combination of seasonal light and darkness, by contrast, Rodia’s towers are bathed daily in total sunlight, which is nearly constant in Southern California. Rodia inscribed his work with a public sign, Nuestro Pueblo, an appropriate name considering the towers’ public location in the middle of his suburban, ethnic neighbourhood.

Forestiere’s and Rodia’s creations contrast in their light/dark and public/private dimensions. However, what brings their two works together is that they also represent “home” for the two immigrant wayfarers. Forestiere’s Underground Gardens narrates for us the interior, private aspect of separation that characterizes all immigrant experiences in America. There is something fundamentally sad about a man who spent the better part of his life underground, recalling a past he could only revisit in its derivative forms. But there is also something joyful in the gardens he planted and in his successful efforts to bring the sunlight, if only seasonally, into his underground grottoes and planters.

Both men narrated in their respective “dialects,” their inner turmoil inspired by the bicultural experience of Italian immigration. Rodia was surrounded by suburban and industrial America; Forestiere was surrounded by a rural landscape. Rodia merged the common images from his regional ceremonial spires with the found objects of modern industrial America. With his hand tools, the pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow, Forestiere used his hardpan “bricks,” the most abundant resource he had, to create the arches and gardens of his Sicilian memories.

Both men engaged in what can only be termed, without fear of hyperbole, a Herculean labour. Work was a primary value that immigrant Italians brought with them as peasants to the New World. Rodia’s Watts Towers, in their unique decoration with the materials he found around him in Los Angeles, and their soaring heights, speak more eloquently to that dream of success that most immigrants brought to the New World than do Forestiere’s retrospective underground arches. Ultimately, both Simon Rodia and Baldassare Forestiere transcended their parochial, subaltern origins in Italy and inscribed a timeless message about the immigrant experience in their unique works.  

For complete documentation of sources used in this essay, see “Creative Responses to the Italian Immigrant Experience in California: Baldassare Forestiere’s Underground Gardens and Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers.” The Italian American Review, Autumn/Winter 2001, 113- 140. A shorter version of this article appeared in The Land Beyond: Italian Migrants in the Westward Movement, edited by Gloria Ricci Lothrop. San Marino, Patrons of Italian Culture, 2007.

Kenneth Scambray is professor of English at the University of La Verne, scambrayk@verizon.net.

First published in Accenti Magazine Issue 11.

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