To Do: Migrate

This lecture was part of the Divine Disorder Conference on the Conservation of Outsider Folk art that was organized and hosted by NCPTT. The conference was held February 15-16, 2012 on the campus of Northwestern University in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

Taking the Art to the Streets: How the Citizens of Los Angeles Saved Watts Towers

Church:         I’d now like to introduce our next speaker, Jo Farb Hernandez, director of SPACES, which stands for Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments, a nonprofit that archives and documenting art environments and self taught arts.  So I will now turn it over to Jo Farb.

Hernandez:  Good morning.  I’ve been professionally and academically involved with the genre of art environments since 1973 when my then boyfriend, now husband, and I used to travel a lot on weekends to visit Wisconsin’s many wonderful sites.  When I moved to Los Angeles to pursue my Masters Degree in Folkart in 1974, for which I eventually wrote my master’s thesis on art environments,  I visited Sabato Rodias’ towers in Watts, so it was one of my first forays beyond campus.  My love affair with them began instantaneously not only because of my earlier experience with works of this genre, but because of the phenomenal and immediate aesthetic impact.  And although I’ve been involved in many, many, different styles and genres of art since then, I’ve always returned to the study and documentation of art environments.  They are truly my passion and my inspiration.

I became director of SPACES, the nonprofit organization Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments within days of founding director Seymour Rosen’s death in the fall of 2006. In order to show continuity within the organization and to reassure SPACES donors and friends that the precious photographs, films, documents,  and artists files would be retained  and preserved. I’d worked with Seymour  since 1985 when we co-curated and exhibition on California Art Environments at the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara where I had been director and chief curator and incidentally, that exhibition was called Divine Disorder.  Since then, I had helped him with projects, written grants, and I had served on the Board.  And I found my most recent personal  research and  interest  in writing has been on Spanish Art environments.

I return again and again to the Towers. Not only through my work at SPACES, where we provide vintage images to museums, galleries, filmmakers and writers, but because I am continually amazed  not only by their unique aesthetic power but by the intensity and passion of those who have championed their survival for more than fifty years.

In many ways the Watts Towers epitomize the genre of monumental art environments. Breathtakingly resplendent in the California sun, the spires sparkle to a height approaching one hundred feet , boasting of the idiosyncratic yet elegant aesthetic of a single masterful artist. Yet the reverence in which the Towers are held, the international renown and public recognition in which they  are celebrated, the status of national Historic Landmark with which they, to date alone in the united States art environments, have been honored, mask a battle over their preservation. Indeed over their very worth that has dragged on for more than half a century.

In today’s presentation, I will provide a short history of the valiant attempts of the citizens of Los Angeles to secure, stabilize and preserve the Towers for future generations.

When a group of assorted community activists and artists banded together to save Sabato Rodias’ Towers from the city’s demolition decree, the genre of art environments hadn’t yet even been defined.  Those ordinary citizens only knew that this was a series of sculptures and monuments that enlivened their spirits and that they must not be destroyed.  They worked hard to do so, and some of the original committee members along with new recruits, are still clashing with city departments in order to ascertain that the ongoing conservation work is done correctly and professionally.  This phenomenal battle waged on a city, county, and state level by media savvy citizens in one of our country’s most populous cities, boasting a wealth of knowledge and a sophistication and appreciation for art in all of its various forms, was never across the years, easy nor has it been completely successful.  And although the Towers still stand, now honored with municipal, state, national, and National Historic Landmark status, they have been subjugated to sloppy and ineffective conservation, insensitive and unattractive boundary  fencing which closes them off from the local neighborhood, and significant loss of components to the elements, to incompetence, and to theft.  And this is one of the success stories of the field.

Although the dates of 1921 and 1923 are both inscribed into the decoration of 1765 107th Street East, a one -tenth acre site edging the Pacific Electric Railway Red Car tracks in those days, the exact date of Rodia’s initiation of his monumental endeavor is unknown.  What is clear is that starting in his early 40’s he worked on them for the next 30 plus years, creating a masterpiece that has become the quintessence of the environmental art genre.  Every minute that he was not working in his assorted day jobs he spent either constructing and decorating the Towers or amassing the materials necessary to do so.  He combed the nearby railroad tracks for bits of glass and other discarded refuse that he could recycle into decorative surface treatment.  He took the Red Car line down to the beach to collect sea shells and rocks, broken pottery, tiles, plates, rocks, mirrors, and other found objects rounded out his palette.  Around his  home a complex environment began taking shape, complete with fountains, niches, outdoor seating, a gazebo, stalagmite gardens, plazas, and walkways.  Seventeen different sculptures were ultimately erected.

Toiling alone, every day Rodia added to what he had build the day before, modifying, tearing down, rebuilding, transforming.   Neighbors even recalled him stringing lights so he could work into the night.  He worked without scaffolding forming the [?] substructure by wedging the ends of the metal beams under the railroad tracks nearby, leaning on them, pressing up  on them, and bending them to fit his need.  A small wiry man not even 5 feet tall, he slowly raised his towers one short level at a time, building up from the lower tiers and using the structure itself as a ladder as he swung up the lacy supports, carrying a pail of wet cement and his simple tools. He reinforced the vertical supports with horizontal bands circling the core, elegantly constricting the spokes as the spires rose in height until the tallest tower, the western most, ascended to 99 1/2 feet tall, the longest slender reinforced concrete column in the world at that time.

Alternating  T beams and angle irons he spliced and overlapped their junctures, tying them together with chicken wire that he then tightly wrapped with wire mesh.  The joints were not welded, bolted, or riveted together in any way, but many  were configured in the most economic and efficient structure possible.  Triangles developed into four sided tetrahedrons.  These innovative socket fitting connections have actually become known as the Rodia joint.  The steel was then covered by a reinforced concrete mortar mixture into which were pressed decorative colorful glass and ceramic pieces that served as important functional elements in their own rights because they protected the substructure from rain and moisture, capping the essential simplicity and the functional formalism of his aesthetic.  This construction technique was a radical innovation and foreshadowed the thin shelled concrete structures of ferrous cement by trained architects by at least five years.  The light weight of this type of construction facilitates the building of tall structures while successfully supporting tension and compression loads.

Clearly, although his environment was created in an additive manner, it was by no means constructed haphazardly.  In addition to the need of generally minor repairs and modifications that he attended to constantly, conservators and engineers have determined that after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, which hit 6.3 on the Richter scale, damaged the foundation of the new Los Angeles city hall five miles further away from the epicenter, although it had little impact on the towers.  Rodia made significant changes to strengthen his work adding outside columns, intersecting rings, and decorative buttresses on the eastern most and center towers, as well as widening and adding weight to the bases.

As Rodia worked through the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s Watts itself was changing. From an ethnically diverse area of small Anglo, Mexican, and African-American homes alternating with larger Japanese truck farms, the Anglos moved on, the Japanese were interned, and their  truck farms were turned into a higher density, more homogenous, residential district. The aging Rodia increasingly isolated himself from his neighbors, angry at the world and at what he saw as its disintegrating values.  Local children, gleaning from their parents that he was a crazy old man, aimed rocks at the glass work and climbed over the walls to smoke and drink.  Treasure hunters unearthed sections and smashed the crockery, convinced that there was a fortune buried underneath.  Debris and trash accumulated.  Finally Rodia had had enough.

In 1954 he packed up his few belongings, deeded his property to his neighbor Luis H. Salceda, and walked away never to return.  When asked what should be done with the Towers he shrugged his shoulders indicating that he didn’t care.  Salceda soon sold the property for less than $1000 to another neighbor, Joseph Montoya, who planned to open a Mexican fast food stand there.  But in the meantime Rodia’s cottage, located within the enclosing wall, burned to the ground, probably around 1955 or 1956, likely a result of arson and the area within continued to deteriorate.

In late 1958 or the spring of 1959, actor Nicholas King and film editor William Cartwright were visiting the site,  when seeing its neglect they happened to meet Montoya and they proposed a sale for $20 down, all they had in their pockets at the time plus a promise to pay a total of $3000. They hoped to preserve the Towers as the spectacular art environment that they were.  Only later, when they applied for a permit to build a caretakers cottage on the site to ensure ongoing protection, did they discover the reason Montoya had never achieved his objective and had been so eager to sell.  On February 5, 1957 the city of Los Angeles had issued the demolition order condemning the buildings as a “unauthorized public hazard” and prohibited further development on that site until the Towers were removed.

The city of Los Angeles based its decision on the lack of records showing that “these towers having been designed or constructed according to a rational plan or engineering principles or having been inspected for sound or accepted construction procedures. ” They also assumed that they would be unable to withstand strength or wind loads, earthquakes, and working stresses as specified in the municipal building code.   According to that code, a ten story building would require a 24 foot deep footing.  In contrast, Rodia’s ten story structure had a footing of only 18 inches.  To this end, the Department of Building and Safety concluded that the “towers exit as dangerous structures and public nuisances and that they endanger the life, limb, property, safety, and general welfare of the public.”  As they believed repair was impossible, they decreed destruction.

Since Montoya had ignored the demolition order and had sold the property, the city prepared to flatten the towers at  taxpayer’s expense.  Negotiations to save them seemed futile. They were regularly referred to by city staff as a pile of junk, and a Building and Safety Department official was quoted as saying “That the Leaning Tower of Pisa would have also been declared unsafe and demolished if it had tilted at such a dangerous angle in Los Angeles.

An international cry went out led by King and Cartwright, Jim Elliot, then curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and other unaffiliated artists, architects, activists, and community members who came together to form the Committee for Simon Rodias Towers in Watts, the CSRTW.  The committee purchased the Towers from Cartwright and King, worked to pay off the debt, and began the task of proving that the Towers were both an aesthetic masterpiece and structurally sound.  For the former task they enlisted such renowned figures as designer Buckminster Fuller, architect Philip Johnson, art critic Clement Greenburg, and poet Carl Sandburg.  Telegraphs and letters of support were sent from the Museum of Modern Art, The Guggenheim Museum, and numerous other arts organizations and groups.  Committee members also leveraged technical experts to volunteer and testify.

At the demolition hearing  which dragged on for 13 days, the CSRTW was represented by young aerospace engineer, Bud Goldstone, on leave without pay from his job at North American Aviation, and volunteer attorney Jack Levine.  Finally the city agreed to a lateral stress test spearheaded by Goldstone at the committees expense.  Cables were to be connected to the tallest tower, the elements heavily padded to avoid damage where the cables were attached and stress applied in 1000 pound increments up to the top load of 10,000 pounds, equivalent to a 76 mile-per- hour gale force wind.  If the tower could withstand this load for 5 minutes, the city agreed to concede that the Towers were stable enough not to be demolished.

Although both sides were relieved by the compromise neither side was particularly happy about it.  The CSRTW, in fact, voted to approve the compromise and go through the stress test by a single vote.  With those against, such as art historian Kate Steinitz described it as “A barbaric measure comparable to a witch trial of the middle ages.”

On October 10, 1959 a test was set up. With hundreds of supporters and detractors standing by holding their breaths as the stress load was steadily increased.  When the load finally reached the 10,000 pound level, the steel beam attaching the tower to the testing apparatus began to bend but the tower remained standing, showing no signs of buckling or strain.  A single glass ornament is said to have fallen to the ground.  The city rescinded the demolition order and granted an occupancy permit to the committee following some minor repairs required by the Building and Safety Department.

In 1960 the Towers were opened to the public for a fifty cent entrance donation, and that year members of the committee began offering free art classes to the neighborhood children.  A fundraising campaign was initiated to build the Watts Towers Art Center, an entirely new building adjacent to the towers earmarked for community cultural events.  This center, formally dedicated on March 1, 1970, continues today with a comprehensive program of arts and cultural activities.

But by October 1975, the combined efforts of overseeing the arts center programs and trying to keep up with maintenance on the aging towers had exhausted the committee members who formally gifted the site to the city of Los Angeles “‘With the clear understanding that generous funds would be allocated for immediate prepare and continuing maintenance preservation.”  However the committee was soon to regret this decision as the site began to deteriorate rapidly because the city expended no money on preservation and repair.

Finally, upon request from committee members, they closed the site to the public on March 15, 1978. Shortly thereafter, the city conveyed the towers to the state of California, receiving in exchange $207,000 to support the expenses of repairs and restoration.  But then it was leased back to the city for fifty years until 2028.  Although a long range conservation plan was formally developed and the first phase of renovation implemented, the contractor disregarded its recommendations.

His ill trained crew used the tower rungs for climbing rather than constructing scaffolding around them.  They tore off ornaments and damaged members without marking them or noting their original location, allowing them to drop and smash onto the patio floor. They engaged in numerous other negligent and destructive practices.  On October 26, 1978, the Center for Law and the Public Interest filed suit on behalf of the committee against the city, its Board of Public Works and contractor Rolf Vaughn, charging them all with contributing to its destruction instead.  While this suit was pending, the state interceded allocating one million dollars in its 1980 budget for development of the Watts Towers Simon Rodia Park Project. They spelled his name wrong in that.  The state Supreme Court placed the Towers under the jurisdiction of the State Resources Agency for the remainder of the repair process and gave the California State Department of Parks and Recreation supervision over the restoration, with the Office of the State Architect assigned with the task of repair.

In the meantime, the city of Los Angeles secured $497,000 in federal revenue sharing funds, allocating the funds for land acquisition adjacent to and near the Towers, landscaping, public restrooms, a security office and parking facilities, not all of which have been constructed.  The Aroncrans Group of San Francisco conducted the next conservation study and proposed recommendations. But these were modified more than halfway through the process, reflecting the differing opinions of scholars and experts as to whether the Towers should be restored to their original condition or should only be conserved and stabilized.  Scaffolding was erected and workers removed the damaged pieces, repairing them if possible, replacing them if necessary, guided by approximated 5000 baseline photographs that had been taken of the structures prior to the beginning of the restoration.

Seventy-four  months later, with the money running out, the unfinished project was concluded just after  the seven year lawsuit was settled, resulting in the allocation of an additional $800,000 from the city for a new five year restoration and maintenance plan for the Towers.  But at this time the Towers were finally redefined as sculpture, requiring art conservation, rather than a building which needed to respond to municipal building codes.  Financial responsibility for repairs was returned to the city, including a stipulation that Los Angeles was ordered to provide between $120,000 and $150,000 annually for maintenance of the monument.

Some restoration took place with about a hundred cracks sealed in 1992-93. Although Goldstone, among many others, was scathing in his evaluation of those conservators expertise ability and sensitivity.  Scaffolding was again erected in the mid 1990s in order to restore new damage caused by the 1994 Northridge earthquake  paid for by a one million dollar FEMA grant.  The scaffolding was finally removed in 2000.

In the meantime, despite the legal stipulations, city funds were not being consistently committed to support conservation and stabilization of the Towers.  Goldstone tracked between seven and twenty  years of defrayed  maintenance that were sustained by different components of the site up until 2000 and CSRTW member, Jean Morgan continued to doggedly pursue assistant attorney Francisco Arosco to force him to abide by the terms of the settlement.  Although at first he adamantly and publically denied any city financial responsibility for the Towers, in 2001 he finally admitted that his earlier reading of the settlement had been incorrect and confirmed that the city of Los Angeles “Has a continuing obligation to operate, maintain and repair the Watts towers.”  General fund support was finally added to the city’s 2001-2002 fiscal year budget.

Never-the-less, the quality of the work that was being done did not attain professional standards.  In 2006 the CSRTW published a small document called Damage in Process which photographically illustrated the “false” restoration being carried out at the Towers by city conservators.  State inspection of the Towers, initiated as a result of this document, revealed that the towers had been subject to “artistic interpretation” by the conservators.  And in 2006, the city was mandated to stop this interpretation but to continue with badly needed minor repairs and structural stabilization.  Instead, the city stopped all conservation work on the Towers despite the annual funding that they were required by law to provide.

In July 2009, the two city bodies with responsibility for the towers, the Cultural Affairs Commission (which counsels the city on arts policy) and the Cultural Heritage Commission (which monitors landmarks) unanimously asked the mayor to develop a private nonprofit citizens group to fundraise for the Towers, the unspoken inference being that this would be a different group than the CSRTW.  The Commission’s attempt to abdicate certain of their stipulated responsibilities was, at least in part, in response to the depressed economic circumstances of the city, which in the previous months had laid off three conservators and one office worker, effectively reducing annual spending on the Towers by one third.  It was no doubt also due at least in part to the staff members frustration, and in all probability annoyance, with the continuing review of their activities conducted by the unfailing, unflagging email criticisms and questions by members of the CSRTW.

But at the same time the executive director of the Department of Cultural Affairs acknowledged that of the ten recommendations made by the consultants retained by the state of California in 2005-2006, “Just one has been fully implemented, another has been partially accomplished, and the rest have gone unaddressed due to budget restrictions.”

At  this point, although the site may have been generally stabilized, ongoing conservation and maintenance will continue to be costly and problematic.  Despite its status as perhaps the world’s best known art environment, with millions of dollars poured into its survival by the federal, state, and municipal governments, private foundations, and hundreds of individual supporters, the Towers are forlornly fenced off, not only from their local community, but from their well-wishers internationally.  Since 1978, the Towers have been closed much of the time to the public, their power and impact diluted.

In this case, the decision to give the site to the city was not the answer.  Even after all the earlier fiascos, in 2001 they were considering actually dismantling a portion of Rodia’s north wall to open up a better view of the Towers from the new amphitheatre that they had constructed.  Up until this past fall, 2011, a neighborhood skateboard park was being enthusiastically touted to be built a mere forty yards east of the towers.  Because artworks of this nature cannot be hermetically stored and protected, they need continued vigilance and a concerted long term effort from a broad base of local community members backed up by art and preservation professionals internationally, to ensure their survival.  This is where the Los Angeles County Museum of Art comes in. After developing a contract with the city for review and conservation of the towers, in a moment I will pass this on to my colleague Frank Preusser, who will bring us to date.

Sabato  Rodia’s Towers in Watts is the first art environment to obtain municipal, state, and National Landmark status, is the first to be the focus of a major museum exhibition as the center of a five decade long struggle against city hall, has had tremendous influence on the art world, and although the works of nonacademic artists such as Rodia are beginning to be included in an expanded definition of art, these works still remain in a more tenuous and often precarious position.

Typically protected in some way, academic art and folk arts are housed in galleries or museums. They’re regarded as national treasures or they are cared for by the community from which they sprung.   Even if they are in a private home and are in use, they are relatively safe.  Most, if not all, of these art environments  however, are continuously at risk.  We have seen that even after more than fifty years of active, aggressive, community work on behalf of the Watts Towers they are still not as stable or as protected as we would like them to be.  The litany of issues with the local authorities that the CSRTW has documented over the years, underscores the precarious nature of their continued existence.  Artworks in other categories would not be subjected to such unethical destruction.

What this means for us is that  appreciation and documentation of these sites cannot stand alone without advocacy and political action, often over the long term. But each small success, one by one, indicates positive progress towards greater inclusivity in our historical definition.  It’s important to realize that such art environments are often intended as gifts to enrich the life of the greater public, although they are not always recognized as such. They are alternative individual spaces but they carry significant public meanings, and they are laced with cultural references to which we are all heir.  As these [?] recycle the waste materials of our culture for the common benefit, they are consequently not to be dismissed as exhibiting crazy behavior, but instead embraced as a positive challenge to both our artistic and our social norms to the limits of our tolerance and to our capacity to acknowledge the marvelous.  Thank you.

Church:      Do we have any questions for Jo before she steps away?  Yes?

Question:    [ Inaudible].

Hernandez:     They are typically open on weekends, most weekends and some holidays.  You obviously can’t climb them anymore, but the Watts Towers Arts Center conducts tours through the bottom of the towers, docent led tours.

Question:     [ Inaudible].

Hernandez:      Some donation, yeah I would call though, just in case in advance

Church:     Other questions?


When the assorted community activists and artists banded together in 1959 to save Sabato Rodia’s Towers from City bureaucrats who decreed demolition, sneering that if Pisa’s Leaning Tower were in L.A. they’d take that down too, the genre of art environments had not yet even been defined. Those ordinary citizens, whose fight against City Hall was later buoyed by national names like Buckminster Fuller and Carl Sandburg, only knew that this was a series of sculptures and monuments that enlivened their spirits, and that they must not be destroyed. They worked hard to do so—and are still working hard, more than fifty years after the success of the stress test proving that the Towers were strong and stable, capable of withstanding any earthquake, hail storm, or rain torrent that might occur in L.A.—and some of the original Committee members, along with new recruits, are still clashing with City departments in order to ascertain that the ongoing conservation work is done correctly and professionally.
This decades-long battle—waged on a city, county, and state level by media-savvy citizens in one of our country’s most populous cities, boasting a wealth of knowledge and sophistication and appreciation for art in its various forms—was never, across the years, easy, nor has it been completely successful. Although the Towers still stand, now honored with municipal, state, and national historic landmark status, they have been subjugated to sloppy and ineffective conservation, insensitive and unattractive boundary fencing which closes them off from the local neighborhood, and significant loss of components to the elements, to incompetence, and to theft. And this is one of the success stories in the field.
This powerpoint presentation will feature vintage photographs by Seymour Rosen of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, created by Sabato Rodia ca. 1921-1954, during the community campaign to save them from demolition, in order to show how public outcry was instrumental in preventing their dismantling and removal. It will include a brief narrative about the Towers and the checkered history of their preservation as the ownership passed from private to non-profit to City to State, set against a more general consideration of the conservation issues inherent in the protection of art environments world-wide.

Speaker Biography

Jo Farb Hernández, Director of SPACES – Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments—a nonprofit archives documenting art environments and self-taught arts, is also Director of the Thompson Art Gallery and Professor in the School of Art and Design at San José State University. She has worked in the museum field for thirty-five years while continuing to document and write about art environments; among other projects, she serves as Contributing Editor for Raw Vision magazine, member of the National Advisory Board for North Carolina’s Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, and member of the International Advisory Board for Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park. She has authored or co-authored over thirty award-winning books and exhibition catalogues; recipient of a 2008 Fulbright Senior Scholar award, she is writing a comprehensive book on Spanish art environments.

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