California’s ‘at-risk’ cultural landscapes include Watts Towers

The Watts Towers were one of three California sites named "at-risk" by the Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C. Their care is now under the stewardship of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
(John C. Lewis / TCLF)

Three sites in California — the Watts Towers, Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Museum in Joshua Tree and the “Bay Lights” installation on the Oakland-Bay Bridge — have been named to a list of 11 “at-risk” sites by The Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C.

These places join eight other at-risk sites around the United States, including the Wells Petroglyph Preserve in northern New Mexico, which is facing problems of erosion, as well as the garden at the Frick Collection in New York City, under threat due to proposed expansion plans at the museum.

“Landscapes often die quiet deaths when you’re dealing with the elements,” says foundation President Charles Birnbaum. “It can be wind or it can be earthquakes. Unless landscapes are cared for, they can reach the tipping point. What this list does is to try to prevent that from happening.”

Begun in 1998, the foundation raises awareness about issues of landscape design.


“Lots of institutions will have information on their websites about the architect of their building or their collections, but when it comes to landscape there often is nothing,” Birnbaum says. “What we want to do is teach people how to see and value landscape and the people who shape those landscapes.”

The at-risk list was launched in 2003 as a way of drawing national attention to places that are threatened with neglect, demolition, poor maintenance or lack of funding. This year’s theme revolves entirely around land-based art and includes art installations and other projects in California and New York, as well as Iowa, Washington and Michigan.

Watts Towers and Purifoy’s outdoor museum were included because they face preservation challenges and for the unique qualities they bring to the landscape.

“What’s so inspiring about Noah Purifoy and [Watts Towers creator] Simon Rodia is that they’re driven, they’re unrelenting, they’re passionate,” says Birnbaum. “What they created was of a singular vision.”

The Watts Towers are under the conservation stewardship of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has been overseeing repairs and maintenance on the site in conjunction with the city of Los Angeles and the Department of Cultural Affairs. Last year, the museum secured a grant to bring in engineers from UCLA to study the stability of the structures, which have been plagued by cracks and loose bits of mosaic elements.

Purifoy’s Outdoor Museum presents its own challenges. Namely, weather and vandalism damage to the sculptures, which are on 10 acres of open land in Joshua Tree.

“What we can do for these places as a national organization is draw attention to them,” says Birnbaum. “Someone visiting L.A. might say, ‘Watts Towers. I need to go to the Watts Towers.’ And it reminds people of the meaning that these landscapes have.”

Perhaps the most unusual selection on the list was the “Bay Lights” installation by artist Leo Villareal on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge — a work that is less than 2 years old. But age wasn’t a factor to get on the list.


“We want to be very broad in how we choose our design heritage,” Birnbaum explains. “Our list begins with petroglyphs that go back [thousands of] years and it brackets that with a project that is less than 2 years old. What all of these things have in common is a dialogue with the landscape that exists.”

See the complete list of the foundation’s at-risk sites, along with specially commissioned photography by artists of each location, at

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