Watts Towers: Can iconic L.A. landmark be saved?

(CBS News) In Los Angeles, the Watts section is known for showing a community at its worst and its best. It's also where two giant spires known as the Watts Towers have withstood the test of time.

The iconic landmarks were built by hand, and now, they are now deteriorating. But as CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports, scientists and art specialists are pushing the boundaries of technology to preserve them.

Gazing up at the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, visitors see a whimsical creation built by hand in iron and cement embedded with broken cups, dinner plates, and soda bottles. But the towers, some built 80 years ago, are also riddled with cracks. Pieces have been falling off for years.

Now, for the first time, a team of engineers and art restoration experts is trying to figure out how to save the towers. Scientific instruments are monitoring temperature, wind speed and even vibrations from passing trains.

Bob Nigbor, an engineer from University of California, Los Angeles, said, "We're measuring the overall motion of the structure and trying to tie that in to the opening and closing of the cracks. We're doing that 200 times a second....200 measurements a second is what you need for fast events like wind gusts and earthquakes."

Nigbor usually studies earthquake damage to buildings and bridges. But now, he's trying discover why the towers are cracking, and why previous efforts to fix them have failed.

The man who built the Watts Towers wasn't an architect or engineer. Simon Rodia was a construction worker. From the 1920s to the early 1950s, he spent his spare time building the towers in his backyard.

Asked what he thinks of the creation, Nigbor said, "You know, it's fabulous. He wasn't an architect, he wasn't an engineer, but he knew how things worked."

Rodia's towers soon became a point of pride in a Watts, a neighborhood often associated with poverty and crime. Even in the Watts riots of the 1960s, Rodia's towers were untouched.

Rodia used many 7-Up bottles to construct his towers. Mark Gilberg, director of Conservation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said, "They're all over the place. He chose 7-Up because it's green, it's got color."

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has so far has invested $2 million searching for ways to preserve the towers.

Gilberg said, "It's not a museum piece, but it gets the same level of respect and care that we would any of the artwork we have at LACMA."

So if somebody builds something in their backyard, does it automatically become art?

"If you get a response from it, it makes it art," Gilberg said. "Whether it's good art, that's another story. This is great art."

Frank Preusser, the museum's senior scientist, has helped preserve such ancient treasures as the Sphinx in Egypt. Now, he's searching for a new way to stop decay at the towers. Preusser said, "It all boils down to why does it fall apart and what can I do against it."

The key to saving this art might lie in finding a particularly flexible material to permanently patch the cracks. It turns out the towers are like flowers, moving with the sun.

Nigbor said, "We've actually found that on a daily cycle the whole tower actually moves about an inch to the North when the sun comes up, because it heats this side of the structure. And at the end of the day when the sun goes away, it actually goes back to where it started, and it does that every day."

The towers don't just move, they move people with wonder. And successful restoration will mean Rodia's art will be living long into the future.

For John Blackstone's full report, watch the video above.

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