The year I was born, the now-world-famous Watts Towers in Los Angeles nearly died. It was 1959, and the city of Los Angeles was worried, or at least claimed to be. The Towers, built over the course of many years by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia in the Watts section of LA, were neglected and in disrepair after Rodia left town. The complex of seventeen major structures built of concrete, rebar, ceramic, shells, and glass -- the tallest of which stretched 100 feet into the sky -- appeared vulnerable to collapse, especially in the event of a tremor or earthquake.
So in 1959, the city of Los Angeles ordered the Towers demolished.
Fortunately, a group of concerned citizens formed a committee to save the Towers. One of their members was N. J. (Bud) Goldstone, and aerospace engineer (below). He devised a stress test to prove the Towers were safe. After being subjected to tremendous pressure, the Towers did not budge. So they were spared.
But they still needed work, and have continually required care and restoration ever since. In recent times this has proven difficult, as the city's budget became stretched by the severe recession. In 2011 the city had only $150,000 to offer, down from its annual allocation of $300,000.
The time was ripe for another champion of this folk art masterpiece to step forward. Michael Govan had admired the Towers ever since his grad school days at the University of California at San Diego. In his current role as Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) he approached the city about a partnership to help preserve the Towers. Since most private foundations do not grant money to governments, LACMA became the agent for the city, and recently obtained a $500,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation to do the conservation work along with programming for the Watts Towers Art Center and Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center.
So now a major urban fine art museum will become the primary caretaker of a folk art wonder that it doesn't even own. That's a long way from the wrecking ball prospects of a half century ago.