Monday, April 22, 2019


The Watts Towers: Once declared a nusiance
by the City of Los Angeles, they are now
a national historic landmark.
A number of my previous blogs on home styles have looked at what you might call “legitimate” architectural styles--mass-produced, popular and relatively buttoned-down stuff. But some of the most fascinating architecture of the twentieth century came neither from architects nor from professional builders, and can’t be fit any stylistic cubbyhole.  

Such works—sometimes classed as “naive” or “visionary” design—are the product of singular personalities refreshingly free of academic influences. Here is a sampling:  

Simon Rodia: "You gotta do
somethin' they never got 'em in the world."
•   In 1921 Sabato "Simon" Rodia, an uneducated Italian immigrant laborer, began building the first of a group of towers around his house in the Watts district of Los Angeles. Fashioned out of cement-covered steel bars and encrusted with fantastic arrays of shells, bottles, and bits of tile and glass, the tallest of the structures eventually soared nearly a hundred feet high. After laboring on the towers for thirty-three years Rodia, then 79, laid down his tools, deeded the property to his neighbor for nothing, and left Los Angeles. Of the now-famous Watts Towers he said simply,  “I had in mind to do something big and I did.”

Grandma Prisbrey—sans her vaccuum tube hat—
and a few of her inanimate friends at the Bottle Village.
•   In the mid-50s, “Grandma” Tressa Prisbrey found that her collection of 2000 pencils had outgrown her house trailer near Simi Valley, California. So she began building a small structure to display them, using a material that was cheap and plentiful--discarded bottles. Over the next twenty years, this humble beginning evolved into the Bottle Village, a 40-by-300 foot compound of 13 buildings and nine other structures, all built out of some one million bottles laid up in cement.  

An interior lit by amber glass bottles at the Bottle Village.
Prisbrey, who now and then sported a sun hat ringed with old vacuum tubes, also made daily trips to the dump, where she collected bits of broken tile, old headlights, and a cavalcade of other discards. These she lovingly inlaid into every square inch of paving  between her bottle structures, as well as into numerous free-form planters she built on the site. Prisbrey filled these planters with cactus, explaining:

“I don’t care much for cactus myself, but I don’t have a green thumb and if I forget to water the cactus they just grow anyhow. . .they remind me of myself.  They are independent, prickly, and ask nothing from anybody.”

The Winchester Mystery House: I don't know about the mystery part,
but it's a cracking good place to view Victorian and early Edwardian
architecture. (Image courtesy of Winchester Mystery House)
•  And of course, no account of wacky architecture would be complete without mention of Sara Winchester, diminutive heiress to the Winchester arms fortune. Supposedly plagued by the spirits of the untold men who had died at the business end of Winchester rifles, Sara consulted a fortune teller, who informed her that as long as she kept adding onto her modest San Jose farmhouse, she would not only escape their wrath, but would never die to boot. Psychics having had a good deal more credibility in the late-19th century, she immediately embarked on the remodel to end all remodels—a project that would last several decades and ultimately yield a spectacularly rambling Victorian/Edwardian house with 160 rooms. Among its idiosyncrasies: a seance room, a bell tower for summoning the spirits, and the pointed use of design motifs with 13 elements.  

All tour-guide puffery aside, the Winchester House remains a fine place to view the transition of architectural style from the late-nineteenth to the twentieth century—a wacky enough subject in itself.

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