its own right. Conceived by the postmodern architect Michael Graves and jointly designed by engineer Alan Shalders and James Madison Cutts Consulting Structural Engineers, the subtly sloping aluminum framework—all 37 miles (60 kilometers) of it—rose parallel to the taper of the monument. Concrete footings were built under the surrounding pavement to bear its weight, and an ingenious support and bracing system meant that it only lightly touched the great obelisk. The frame was sheathed in transparent fabric designed by Graves; its pattern of blue, horizontal and vertical lines reflected the masonry beneath. The Washington National Monument reopened to the public in late spring 2000.

Further reading

Freidel, Frank, and Lonnelle Aikman. 1988. George Washington: Man and Monument. Washington, DC: Washington National Monument Association.

Olszewski, George J. 1971. A History of the Washington Monument, 1844–1968. Washington, DC: Office of History and Historic Architecture.

Watts Towers

Los Angeles, California

The Watts Towers comprise a group of imaginative structures at 1765 East 107th Street in south-central Los Angeles. Once threatened with demolition, they are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and enjoy the dual status of a State of California Historic Park and Historic-Cultural Monument and a National Historic Landmark (a distinction bestowed in 1990). Someone has described them as “a unique monument to the human spirit and the persistence of a singular vision.”

They were built between 1921 and 1954 by Sabato (Simon) Rodia (1879–1965). Rodia was born in a rural village named Ribottoli, near Naples, Italy, where he worked on the family farm and received no formal education. He emigrated to the United States when he was about fifteen years old (some sources say he was sent at the age of twelve). At first employed on the Pennsylvania coalfields, he later moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he married and had two children. Some time around 1918 he found work in the construction industry in southern California. In 1921, he purchased a triangular lot alongside a railroad track on dead-end East 107th Street in the Los Angeles multicultural working-class suburb of Watts. Immediately he began work on his fantastic creation, naming it Nuestro Pueblo (Our Town), which became America’s best-known folk-art sculpture. Or is it architecture? Whichever, the official name of the work is “The Watts Towers of Simon Rodia.”

For thirty years Rodia worked alone, without power tools, scaffolding, bolts, rivets, or welds—his only equipment was his tile-setter’s tools and a window washer’s safety harness—building a series of towers redolent of the fantastic work of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona. But there is no evidence that Rodia had even heard of Gaudí. The nine major structures include three towers, approximately circular in section and impressive for their individuality, purposefulness, and order. They are 99.5, 97.8, and 55 feet (31, 30, and 17 meters) tall, respectively. The slender main legs are assembled from steel pipes and rods, stiffened with circular hoops connected by spokes; all of the sections are tied together with wire, wrapped in wire mesh and then covered by hand-packed cement mortar. Quite intuitively, Rodia produced the ferro-cimento made famous by his compatriot, the engineer Pier Luigi Nervi, and his towers gained remarkably high structural strength.

But the towers are only part of the wonder Simon Rodia created on his small slice of America. The north and south perimeter fences of the property, almost 300 feet (93 meters) long, are of similar construction to the towers. Mailboxes emblazoned with his initials and the address flank the entrance. A. fire destroyed the house in 1955 and only the front facade and a fireplace and chimney remain. East of the house is the patio with its decorated floor, from which the sculptures rise. To the north is a gazebo, with its 38-foot (11.6-meter) spire, three birdbaths, a center column, and a circular bench. There is also a “Ship of Marco Polo,” with a 28-foot (8.6-meter) spire. Everywhere in the mortar that forms and molds every surface are embedded all manner of carefully selected and juxtaposed cast-off materials—bottle caps, broken glass (mostly green, some blue, but