The all-too-few art patrons who have actually made the drive to South L.A. to see the Watts Towers have witnessed something remarkable: one man's cathedral, a massive tiara set with junk that glitters like gemstones, a tribute to artistic obsession and human potential. Yet although the towers are a cultural treasure -- one of only six national historic landmarks in the city and a symbol of pride and resilience for the community -- they have long been a drain on the city treasury.
In 1955, when Simon Rodia walked away from the backyard project that had taken up 34 years of his life, he left behind what a former Times art critic called "the greatest existing work of folk art"; what the impoverished Italian stonemason didn't leave was a bequest to pay for maintaining it. Once threatened with the wrecking ball, the towers have been saved by occasional infusions of state, local and federal funding and are kept in decent but insufficient repair by the city's Cultural Affairs Department. Now, a city budget crisis threatens even that minimal support, making a helpful gesture by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last week all the more welcome.
LACMA officials said they would lend their expertise to help conserve the towers. They also promised to help raise private donations to keep them in good repair. That's critical, because heat and moisture continually create cracks in the towers and the fanciful structures surrounding them, and the eye-popping ornamentation -- seashells and pottery shards and discarded tiles and glass bottles -- often falls off. The cost of deferred conservation work has been estimated at $5 million, yet the city will struggle to scrape up $200,000 for the landmark next year, and the Cultural Affairs staff is being cut nearly in half. Among the departures is the towers' curator.
If the Watts Towers were located in, say, Westwood, they might be a more internationally renowned symbol of the city than the Hollywood sign. Then again, if they weren't tucked at the end of a cul de sac in a poor and gang-wracked neighborhood, there's a good chance that by now they would have been torn down and replaced by a mini-mall or a housing tract. Notorious for bulldozing its historic structures, Los Angeles is also remarkably stingy when it comes to support for the arts. Conservators at the Watts Towers have gone begging for patronage for decades, but overstretched benefactors such as the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Foundation and the Getty Foundation have expressed little interest. LACMA's offer of help is appreciated, but it alone is unlikely to be able to provide the support the towers need.
Rodia's gift to the city is far too precious to be lost to history.