Watching over Watts Towers
From a distance, the Watts Towers rise like tall cyclones of steel and concrete — the highest nearly 100 feet — spiraling toward the sky, standing guard over the Lilliputian bungalows lining East 107th Street. Up close the towers are a fantastical playground of archways and steps, inlaid with shards of pottery, glass and shells, their glistening gem-like surfaces begging to be touched — something tour guides admonish visitors not to do.
It took the eccentric tilemaker Simon Rodia 34 years to build the towers, finishing them in 1955 and then leaving Watts, never to return. It’s taken Los Angeles ever since to figure out how to care for them. They seem to be in a state of chronic crisis and salvation: threatened with demolition in 1959, forced to take a stress test, then spared and declared a national historic landmark; desperate for repair in the late 1970s, then rescued with government funds; suffering from city budget cuts and in need of conservation again now.
After half a century of ups and downs, the towers need a plan that can see them through this century. But devising that plan is as complicated and intricate as the towers themselves. Money is only part of the issue.
The towers are technically owned by the state but are run by the city of Los Angeles, whose Department of Cultural Affairs’ Watts Towers Arts Center manages the towers, runs the tours and oversees the many arts programs operated out of the center next to the towers. The center and a trio of nonprofit civic groups have fiercely watched over the towers for years.
As much as these groups would love to see a multimillion-dollar endowment for the towers, they draw the line at having the city, and the local community, give up control of their masterpiece.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art currently has a one-year contract with the city to make repairs and, more important, devise a detailed plan for the long-term conservation of the towers, according to director Michael Govan, who considers the towers “among the greatest artworks in the world.”
The towers sit outside — that’s part of what makes them special — and will forever be buffeted by winds, rain and temperature changes. They will forever require conservation and a high level of maintenance. LACMA brings powerful conservation and administration resources to the table, and if it can work collaboratively, we hope it can win the community’s trust.
Ideally, the towers should be overseen by a partnership of museum professionals, the Arts Center and the civic organizations. A well-crafted blueprint for the future might help attract a generous benefactor who could underwrite this worthy endeavor.
The towers have withstood earthquakes, riots, gangs and curious children who long ago climbed them like a jungle gym. Let’s not have them succumb to politics.
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