Gateway to Rodia's House at the Watts Towers  
Rodia's Watts Towers on a stormy day    

After he died, he rematerialized on the cover of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", peeking shyly from behind Bob Dylan and peering over the heads of Karl Marx and H.G. Wells. Today most people say that the man who built the Watts Towers was "Simon Rodia". In 1950s newspaper articles, he was "Sam Rodilla" or even "Rodella". But for most of his life, he seems to have called himself "Sam Rodia". He lived a long life, talked a lot, but left surprising mysteries behind.

Sam Rodia's mysteries begin with his towers, which change personality with the sky. Viewing them on a stormy day invites verbal melodrama. Are they post-apocalyptic skeletons of ruined spires, corkscrews burrowing into the sky, or simply inverted tornadoes?

Rodia's inspiration is often surmised to have been gigli and cathedral spires remembered from his youth in Italy. But he did not simply build towers. The Watts Towers rise from a maze of arches and domes within a palisade of mosaic panels. This palisade is likely where Rodia's labors began, when he set a row of steel bed frames on edge beside his cottage and slathered them with cement in the early 1920s.

Mosaic Palisade at Rodia's Watts Towers
Rodia's Watts Towers security fence
Rodia's ship at Watts Towers    

Rodia called his complex "Nuestro Pueblo", but, rather than a town. he actually built an ark. Although the security fence camouflages its outline in photographs, the panel palisade gives his ship a sharp-pointed prow while the towers serve as masts.

Rodia's ark contains many nautical references and symbols, often incorporated in interior structures which seem intended as sacramental spaces. Among these are a capstan-shaped baptismal font and a variety of altars, where it is said that Rodia preached to those who would listen and perhaps even performed marriages as a self-ordained minister. One tower provides a flying bridge for the ship's helm. Rodia even included a lifeboat of sorts.

Love and marriage are another theme on Rodia's ark. This most solitary visionary wove numerous hearts into his designs and seems to have dedicated one of his altars to weddings. He even included a cement and ceramic tile dozen-layered wedding cake.

Rodia's Watts Towers mosaic Ship Wheel
Rodia's baptismal font at Watts Towers
Rodia's mosaic spiderweb at Watts Towers    

Rodia's few recorded footprints often lose track with the commonly-traced path of his early years. He was often an unreliable witness to his own life. Each successive census recorded a later birth date, while the year of his immigration shifted from 1894 to 1891 to 1901.

One oft-repeated story is that Rodia immigrated with no education or job skills, settled in the Pennsylvania coalfields with a brother, and then moved west after his brother died in a mine accident. However, the only Sam Rodia enumerated in the 1900 census was one of three bachelor brother barbers living together in Philadelphia.

Rodia apparently went west and married a short time later. Census records show that his son Frank was born in 1903 in Washington State, and his youngest son Furi in California in 1905. The 1910 Census found Samuel Rodia in Alameda, divorced, living only with his sons, and working as a watchman.

By his own account, Rodia at that time had fallen into alcoholism and lived as a solitary nomad for a decade. Was he the Samuel Rodia whose World War I draft card gave his address as 426 South Kansas in El Paso, his employment as janitor at the James Marr Company, and his wife's name as "Mary Venita Rodia"?


The 1920 census enumerated Sam Rodia as a cement finisher living in Long Beach with a nineteen year old wife from Mexico now named "Benita". Sometime after the census enumerator called on January 19, 1920, Rodia apparently broke up with Benita, married his third wife Carmen, and moved to a cottage on a dusty triangular lot at 1765 East 107th Street in Watts. Watts, which at the time mingled fields, tiny ruralesque cottages, home-built shanties, and industrial sites, had a streetcar connection to downtown Los Angeles. Virtually all Rodia's neighbors on 107th Street were emigrants from Mexico who worked as laborers. Apparently no one objected to Rodia's building project, which dates scratched in the cement show had begun by 1921.

Rodia, who was in his early forties when he started the towers, had super-human energy. After his day's work setting tile setter or finishing cement, he bent and tied rebar, trowled concrete, and clambered on ladders far into the night. On weekends he scavenged broken bottles and dishes, and gathered buckets of seashells from the Pacific shores. Although he sometimes purchased broken glass and crockery from children, he apparently performed the actual construction single-handedly.

      Ruin of Rodia's House at Watts Towers      

Carmen reportedly moved out around the start of the construction project. The 1930 Census shows Rodia, who was still working as a cement finisher, living alone on 107th Street. Presumably there was no one to object when he coated his frame cottage with cement and incorporated it into his network of structures. William Hale's 1952 short film about his work shows its interior scarcely more furnished than a hermit's cave. Only the cottage's front and east walls survived a 1957 fire reputedly caused by firecrackers thrown on its roof. Today their rectangular, monochromatic shapes create a surreal stage set amid the fantastic colors and curves of the towers.

Rodia's cups, plates, and sea shells at the Watts Towers    

The press first noticed Rodia's work in 1937, when the LA Times described it as the "hobby of a Watts man". After a decade and a half's solitary labor, Rodia's tallest towers then stood at their full height of almost 100 feet.

A 1939 Times sketch showed the towers, arches, palisade, and canopied entrance, with an arched doorway in place of the ark's prow. Rodia was apparently pleased with the sketch, which shows up on his living room wall in William Hale's film. But the Times had him speaking in comic dialect, denying that the towers' ornaments were smashed empties from his drinking days. Rather, he was quoted as saying that building the towers cured his drinking and that "one time I have bottles all over th' house. Now I get other bottles...from people wat drink. Fonny, eh?"

In 1952, the Times published a brief feature about Rodia's effort to "do something for the U.S.A. before I die - something big". After he pronounced his work complete and walked away from Watts in 1954, efforts to preserve his towers made them world-famous. Today the towers are a meticulously-conserved historic site, although ghost outlines still testify to the marksmanship of stone-throwing depression-era boys.

Watts Tower Ghost Outlines of Rodia's Work