Birthplace: Rivottoli, Italy
Location of death: Martinez, CA
Cause of death: Illness
Remains: Buried, Saint Catherine of Siena Cemetery, Martinez, CA
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Watts Towers
Sabato Rodia never gave consistent answers when asked why he had built the Watts Towers in his back yard. He sometimes claimed that they stood over his wife's grave, though there is no proof that any of his three wives are buried there. At various times he said that the Towers honored the construction of California's highways, or that he built them "because there are nice people in this country." Whatever his reason, the Watts Towers are generally acknowledged as the largest structure yet made by one person working alone. The tallest of the Towers stands just shy of 100 feet in height, and is estimated to weigh about 40,000 pounds.
Rodia was born in a small Italian town, and his family sent him to America when he was five years old. He lived with his older brother in Pennsylvania, and worked as a general laborer, frequently in construction. As a young man he settled near Los Angeles, where he worked as a telephone lineman and tiler. In 1921 he purchased a wedge-shaped lot at the dead end of 107th Street off Santa Ana Boulevard, in a low-rent town called Watts, now part of Los Angeles. There he began his amateur artwork, using salvaged steel bars from construction sites to build several sizable garden ornaments covered in concrete, reinforced with chicken wire, and decorated with a mosaic of broken glass, tile, and pottery, sea shells and what-not. Jazzman Charles Mingus was a neighbor and friend of Rodia's during the early years of the Towers' construction, and was among the many locals who brought bottles and other scraps with which Rodia adorned the growing towers.
Rodia called his work Nuestro Pueblo, Spanish for Our Town, and worked on it obsessively, virtually every evening after work and every weekend. A heavy drinker, he sometimes said that he became obsessed with the artwork to hold his alcohol problems at bay. As Rodia's seventeen tall towers became a neighborhood landmark, they were a frequent site for weddings and family celebrations. In a 1937 Los Angeles Times article which first brought Rodia public attention, his name was erroneously cited as Simon Rodilla, and while his surname was soon corrected in the paper, for the rest of his life media accounts called him Simon Rodia.
In 1954, Rodia, then 75 years old, deeded his home and the Towers to a friend and neighbor, who soon sold the property to a man who planned, unsuccessfully, to construct a taco stand on the site. Rodia retired to Martinez, a town on the outskirts of the San Francisco area, where he lived the remainder of his life and is believed to have never again seen his Towers. In 1956 his former home in Watts burned down, but the artwork was undamaged. In 1957, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety condemned the artwork as unsafe and announced its demolition, but artists and art aficionados rallied to its defense, and stress tests proved the structures surprisingly sturdy. Rodia himself remained silent on the controversy, telling a reporter who sought him out, "If they fall, then they fall." He died in 1965; the Towers still stand.
Father: Francesco Rodia
Mother: Nicoletta Rodia
Brother: Ricardo (coal miner)
Brother: Antonio ("Tony")
Sister: Nicoletta Calicura
Wife: Lucy Ucci (m. 1902, div. 1912, three children)
Son: Francesco ("Frank")
Daughter: Belle Alvira
Wife: Benita Rodia (b. circa 1899, m. 1915, div. 1920)
Wife: Carmen (m. 1921, div. 1927)
Naturalized US Citizen
Risk Factors: Alcoholism
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