First published: Winter 2001
Sam Rodia’s Towers in the Watts section of Los Angeles epitomize the genre of monumental art environments. Breathtakingly resplendent in the California sun, the spires sparkle to a height approaching 100 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 among U.S. art environments – have been honored, mask nearly a half century battle over their preservation and, indeed, over their very worth.
Due in part to their location in one of the nation’s largest cities – particularly one with numerous resident artists, filmmakers, journalists, and photographers enamored of quixotic story lines and eager to capitalize on them – the Watts Towers have received an extraordinary amount of publicity, much of which, unfortunately, has included significant fallacies or misinterpretations.
Even the name of the creator himself has been in doubt: published accounts variously dub him Sabato, Sabatino, Sam, Simon, Simone, or Don Simon Radilla, Roddia, Rodia, or Rodilla, and his birthdate and place have long been in dispute.