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Watts Towers: A South L.A. community's masterpiece up close

March 14, 2011 | 10:39 am

Watts Towers4 Although you can gaze on the Watts Towers from outside its fence -- and many people do --the only way to gain entrance beyond the locked gate is to take a tour. It's worth it.

Once inside, you get to walk through the doll-like archways that the diminutive tile maker Simon Rodia constructed on the perimeter of his massive creation. The towers are really a complex of 17 structures made out of steel that Rodia bent into whatever shape he wanted, then wrapped with wire and covered with concrete. There are no bolts or rivets. He would climb up the structure to keep building it. Part of an intensive conservation effort will involve erecting costly scaffolding. Conservationists can't climb it to fix it.

Embedded in the concrete are about 100,000 ornamental fragments -- pottery shards, glass, and the various flotsam and jetsam of our lives. Up close, you can see the chunks of porcelain tea pots and saucers and 7-Up glass bottles he whimsically and brilliantly used. (Find more photos after the jump.)

Rodia, an Italian immigrant, was not the usual neighbor. Working into the nights, he took 34 years to complete his masterpiece. (Turns out he wasn't the only artist in the neighborhood. Charles Mingus, the great jazz musician, lived a block from the towers.) His own house was situated on the edge of his growing creation. It was destroyed in a fire years later. On the tour, you can see the area where it once stood.

When he was done in 1955, he deeded the property to a neighbor across the street -- "one man who never thought of him as crazy," my tour guide, Howard Marshall, Jr., wryly observed.

Since then, the towers have remained unscathed by the urban unrest and crime that has troubled the rest of South L.A. over the years, as we note in Monday's editorial, Watching over Watts Towers. "It's like a peaceful ground," said Kai El Zabar, who manages the Watts Towers Arts Center on weekends.

Tours are conducted Thursday through Sunday. General admission is $7, but it's less for teens and senior citizens and free for children 12 and under accompanied by an adult.  Call 213-847-4646 for more information. Or check this helpful website.

RELATED:

Watching over Watts Towers

March 8 election: You won; now lead

Will Angelenos learn from the Japan quake?

-- Carla Hall

Photos: Views of the Watts Towers. Credit: Carla Hall

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