Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant and master cement mason, built the Watts Towers by himself over the course of 34 years from 1921 to 1954, using his own design, labor, materials and money.
The City of Los Angeles has owned Watts Towers since 1975. After 35 years, including a lawsuit in 1985, the City still has still not conserved and maintained Watts Towers properly.
Seth Strongin, Policy and Research Manager at The City Project, recently interviewed Bud Goldstone about the need to save Watts Towers — again — after decades of neglect by the City of Los Angeles. Mr. Goldstone has devoted over 50 years to saving Watts Towers.
KCET features the Watts Towers interview on the Departures web site (details below).
Seth Strongin will present the interview at UCLA at the international conference on Watts Towers Common Ground Initiative: Art, Migrations, Development on October 22, 2010 (details below).
The City Project: You have devoted over fifty years of your life to save Watts Towers. Why do the Watts Towers matter?
Bud Goldstone: When I first saw them, I didn’t like them. I thought they were pretty ugly, I really did. They were plain and black, or looked black and dark. And it took me about two months. I was out there almost every day because I knew that I had to do this load test many months before I did it, and I just spent a lot of time there. It kind of grows on you.
It’s an amazing work. This man, Simon Rodia, was a master cement finisher by trade. He was a cement finisher, then he became a master cement finisher. The cement that he used, and the coloring, the pigments, are just unbelievably beautiful when you get close to them. But when you look at the Towers from a distance, you just see the shape. You get up close, you see a little of the color. You get up really close and you can see what Rodia really did, which is amazing. He was a genius, he really was.
It’s a wonderful work of art. It’s one-of-a-kind. You see it’s rare. There are no other Watts Towers anywhere. That’s true of most works of art, but this is really true because no other artist has made anything like what Simon Rodia did. The fact that he was untrained as an artist is even more amazing that he did it, that he could do it and stick to it for 34 years. It’s hard to believe that he did.
The Watts Towers are an amazing work of art by a genius mason.
Unfortunately, they’re not thought of well in too many quarters.
I’m really sorry that people have not gone to see the Watts Towers. Because seeing them and understanding what this Simon Rodia did is an amazing story in itself.
What Must Be Done To Save Watts Towers?
The City Project: As a community, and as concerned citizens, what can we do to help save Watts Towers, to help make sure that Watts Towers are there for generations to come?
Well, I believe that you’d have to start a movement to get the State, which owns the Towers, to turn the Towers over to like the L.A. County Museum of Art, which has a conservation group that I worked for. I worked for them as a consultant on occasion, and they’ve got wonderful people there. The City of Los Angeles has nobody like that, nobody, not even one. So you have to take the Towers away from the City to save them.
The City Project: Do the Watts Towers require maintenance and conservation?
Yeah, they really do, heavy duty. Unfortunately, the City of Los Angeles was given the Watts Towers in 1975. They didn’t bother to do anything with them until 1986. The State did some work on them and spent a million three on them, and I was their consultant when the State was working on the Watts Towers, and they didn’t know what to do either. Understanding what to do with a hand made Watts Towers thing is not easy. It’s redundant, meaning, it’s got way too many legs and it doesn’t need them. It only needs 3 legs, it’s got 16. You can’t calculate how much load there is because the redundancy means you can’t calculate it. So it’s really hard to take care of the Watts Towers.
They’re doing it wrong. They’re doing it all wrong.
The City Project: What is the City doing wrong to save Watts Towers?
I worked as a consultant to the Cultural Affairs Department from 1977 to year 2000, almost 25 years it was. I was out there working on taking care of them. I finished up a major part of the job in the year 2000. We did a detailed inspection, and that was the last good detailed inspection they ever did because they don’t bother doing that anymore. In the inspection, we found that there were a couple of hundred cracks that had formed in the members. They have cement covers, and when the member is going, the steel reinforcement either swells up cause it’s hot, or shrinks down when it’s cold, or an earthquake comes along which is really trouble.
When the covers started cracking, we used to keep track of those failures, count them, identify where they were on a series of a couple hundred photographs we had in detail. They don’t do that anymore, but we did, and so we knew what was happening with the Towers. In year 2000, we had an inspection. We found there were a couple hundred cracks. I was amazed. I didn’t think there would be any cracks. What I didn’t think about at the time, or what I didn’t think hard enough about was that at night when it gets cold, the steel shrinks more than the mortar does. Cement mortar doesn’t shrink as much as steel. In the daytime when it gets hot, the steel grew more than the mortar. So what happened was overnight, stresses build up on it.
The City just published a piece of paper supposedly telling all the problems they had with the Watts Towers. They didn’t even mention the thermal problem, the cold at night and the heat in the day. They didn’t mention that problem. So that’s another reason that I’m really down on the City because they have people who don’t think, and they don’t listen. Because I told them about that, not once or twice, but I even ran a test to prove that in 1986. I had a lab come out and do some tests and put thermocouples on the steel and the mortar and strain gauges to measure what was happening. I left a report with them. The company was called Anco. I remember that, that was from 25 years ago. Anyway, they did this test and the test proved that the heat and the cold caused stresses in the members to go up to about 5 or 6,000 pounds per square inch which is enough to crack the mortar. Well they never bothered to check back on that, and they published a big paper which I just read today. They claim this is all you wanted to know about the Watts Towers and they left that out. Nothing about thermal.
The City Project: If the City doesn’t regularly maintain Watts Towers, what will eventually happen?
They won’t be there. I mean, as soon as the cracks started to build in the cement mortar, then the members start to lose the reinforcement and they’ll start to fall down. When I first saw the Watts Towers in 1959, there were about 100 or 200 feet of cracks, big cracks, in the members of the Watts Towers. There were pieces that had fallen to the ground, big pieces three feet long and one foot long, full of ornamentation that were lying on the patio floor. That’s what happened and that’s what will happen again if they leave them alone and don’t do anything with them.
The only thing the City can do is step aside and let the L.A. County Museum of Art Conservation Center take over, or some other qualified laboratory because the City has no people that really know what to do with the Watts Towers. Even though they’ve got engineers on their staff who work on very fancy stuff, but they don’t know about non-fancy stuff. See the Watts Towers were made by an illiterate, Italian immigrant who was a cement finisher. And they don’t really think much of the Watts Towers down in City Hall, I don’t think. And I’ve got that opinion because I’ve worked with them for 14 years there and I just don’t think they care about the Watts Towers, they don’t think they are worth anything. Even though they are now a U.S. National Historic Landmark.
The City Project: Do you think that a lawsuit might make the City pay attention?
It did last time. In 1985, the Center for Law in the Public Interest drew up a lawsuit against the City for what they did before this in the 50s and 60s and 70s.
As a result of that lawsuit, the City paid about almost $2.5 million, and most went to the Watts Towers. The group that sued them was a nonprofit group that I belonged to at one time called the, I don’t remember it now, but Committee for Saving Rodia’s Towers in Watts. And I belonged to that for some time. I did the load test for that group in 1959.
The City Project: Would you say that the City of Los Angeles is not doing what it needs to do to make sure that Watts Towers can be enjoyed by Los Angelenos and people from all over, and to save Watts Towers for generations to come?
I would say that, yeah. They haven’t done what they should have done. They’ve owned the Watts Towers, or had them in their back pocket, since 1975. 1975, how many years ago is that? Yeah, 35 years ago.
I went through their archive, they call it. The archive is the record of all the tests that have ever been done on the Watts Towers by the City. The next people who get the Watts Towers, I hope soon, will have to look at the record to see what’s happened to them. Well they’re going to find out that the records are screwed up worse than you can believe. They’re, I read them, I have copies of them. You come reading along and all of a sudden there’s a big section that says “to be supplied later by engineering.” I’m looking at the report, it was written in the year 2000. So that was 9 years before. And they still haven’t gotten anything in the record to find out what did engineering find when they examined the Watts Towers after this test. I mean it’s just awful. It’s worse than, I don’t know. It’s the pits.
Saving Watts Towers in 1959: The Load Test that Stopped the Demolition
The City Project: How did you first become involved with Watts Towers in 1959?
I saw pictures of Watts Towers, so I kind of knew what they looked like. It was fascinating because a newspaper article said that the City determined that the stresses in the members exceed twice the allowable. Now it doesn’t mean much to you people, but as an engineer working in structures, the allowable stress would be how much it could stand without failing. And the stresses and the members would be exceeding that. So the newspaper was quoting the head of the Department of Building and Safety, called the Conservation Bureau, when they said that the stresses in the members exceeded twice the allowable, and they were apt to fall of their own dead weight.
Which I realized was a bunch of garbage because the Towers were standing, and they’d been there for years then. Simon Rodia started them in 1921, and this was in 1959, so for 30 some years they’d already been standing. So I knew they weren’t about to fall down of their own dead weight. So I was kind of hooked to begin with because I wanted to find out how they were about to fall down of their own dead weight when they hadn’t for 30 some years. It was wrong and the person who made the comment was the head of the department. He was a full-fledged graduate engineer and had a Masters Degree in structural stuff. So I knew that he was telling a lie, or he didn’t know any better, but that was doubtful.
I went out to the Towers and I checked them out, and I made my own determination that they were not dangerous and apt to fall down. Because what Rodia did when he built them, is he put many members, you can see in this picture here, it doesn’t just have one vertical member, it has 8 or 10 or 16. So if it was going to fall down of its own dead weight, it would have to break 16 members made out of steel and cement mortar. And I knew that wasn’t about to happen.
I tried to prove it with words and some calculations and diagrams, but that didn’t work cause they didn’t want the Towers up. They wanted to get rid of the Watts Towers desperately. They would have done anything to get rid of them.
I was in the demolition hearing. They had a formal, official demolition hearing where they set out to prove to the world that the Watts Towers were dangerous and apt to fall of their own dead weight, which is a lie they made up themselves. So I was in this hearing. It was 16 days of a hearing.
Someone said, how about a load test? Because see their department was convinced that the Watts Towers really were about to fall over, and they really would, had the stresses in the members exceeded the allowable. So they had convinced them, there were 40 members of the Building and Safety Department staff, they were all engineers of some kind. There wasn’t one aeronautical engineer in there. I found that out because I asked them if they knew anything about wind loads, and none of them knew anything about wind loads on sculptures like that. So anyways, so we finally agreed, I agreed that I would do a load test, but I said I got to pick the load. So he said well I know what the load is, and he said it was like 35,000 pounds pulling sideways like the wind on one of the tall sculptures. And I said, no, it’s nowhere near that, and I’ll have to come back tomorrow and tell you what I think it is. So I came back and said it was something like 10,000 pounds, not 40 or whatever he said. So he finally agreed because he didn’t think it would stand up against 5 pounds I don’t think. So anyways I had to design the load test. So I designed a load test, I don’t know if there is a picture here, but I wrapped steel, leather bands with steel in it to give it a distributed load around the Towers, and we wrapped them around a bunch of the members up high and bands of leather with steel in it. I had a very accurate load because I said 10,000 pounds. I wasn’t going to put 10,001 pounds on. So I had a load cell in a hydraulic cylinder that we applied the load from a scaffolding. Anyways, so we did the load test on October 10, 1959.
I did a very fancy test. I had two professors, one from USC, one from UCLA, sitting to be my right and left arms to see what was happening and watch the deflections that we were measuring with a very fancy device that got invented at the company where I worked, North American Aviation. No one ever used that before or since. It was a linear deflection transducer with electronics in it that was way ahead of its time because we were working on very fancy airplanes and spaceships.
They designed this device that we hooked up to the Towers at about five locations. I had a read-out down in the gazebo, which is down at the bottom of one of the Towers. I was reading the deflections as they grew as we put the thousand pounds at a time on the Towers. So I knew exactly what was going on with the Watts Towers even though I was sitting down below because we had our transducers telling me from way up high, about 70 feet up. So anyways, we did the test and it was a success. I think we lost one seashell. There’s 44,000 of these on, we lost one seashell out of this load test. And it was a winner.
So when it got all done, the head of the Building and Safety Department, there was a demolition sign on the front of the Watts Towers that said “to be demolished.” He took it off and handed it to me. But they didn’t believe it. They had 40 of their department members there to watch me tear the Watts Towers down, but I didn’t.
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Watch the video about saving Watts Towers on YouTube
N.J. “Bud” Goldstone is a retired professional engineer who has spent 0ver 50 years working to save Watts Towers. He is a founding member of the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts, Inc. Mr. Goldstone is the author of the book.