Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Birth of Venice

Abbbot Kinney was a real estate developer, and ever since coming to Southern California, he'd wanted to create a successful and money-making resort community at the beach. His partnership in Ocean Park had successfully built the first amusement pier at the foot of Pier Avenue, but the partnership broke up. The partners decided to split up the land between them, and Abbot Kinney received the tracts of land south of Ocean Park, undesireable because they were marshy saltwater wetlands.

He was familiar with the progressive City Beautiful Movement of his time, a school of thought that believed in planning urban centers not only for beautiful design and urban grandeur, but also to impose structural order to society that would promote civic and moral virtues. These ideals had been embodied at the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Architecture firms like McKim, Mead and White and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted were promoters of this idea, and had already left their stamp on America's greatest cities.

Kinney had travelled in Europe as a young man, and admired Venice, Italy. He named his new resort Venice of America. The business district's buildings would be modeled after the Plaza San Marco, with arched colonnades. A series of canals, plied by gondolas, would meander through the residential neighborhoods. The canals would converge at a great lagoon, which would be a bathing and amusement attraction. The lagoon was linked by the business district to the amusement pier.

Despite trouble with contractors, difficulty dredging the canals, and a disasterous winter storm that destroyed the partially constructed pier in February, Kinney's Venice of America opened on July 4th, 1905 to great acclaim. Even though the paint was barely dry, and the bathhouse's heating plant didn't work, 20,000 people took the newly completed Los Angeles Pacific Short Line streetcar to see the new attraction.

It was something to see. The pier included a vast auditorium and a fine restaurant built to look like a sailing ship. The business district's buildings were modeled after those in the Plaza San Marco, with arched colonnades linking each building. The columns' elaborate capitals were ornamented with carved acanthus leaves and the face of a classic beauty - the model, in reality, was a local girl named Nettie Bouck.

Two fine hotels, the Windward and the St.Marks, stood on the beachfront at the end of Windward Avenue, and were equipped with the best modern features, including hot and cold salt water piped into each room. The lagoon included an amusement zone called the Midway Plaisance, with exotic attractions. Visitors could ride the gondolas through the canals, passing beneath the beautiful arched bridges that connected residential streets.

When we see Windward Avenue today, where the original buildings have been torn down or much altered, it's hard to imagine it when it was brand new, the rows of buildings a convincing fantasy of one of the world's great historic cities. In his day, Kinney exerted control over the buildings, the residences, and the amusement enterprises that thrived there, so that nothing was built that conflicted with his design and his vision.

In November 1920, Abbot Kinney died of cancer. A month later, the amusement Pier burned, destroying every attraction on it. The fire was extinguished before it engulfed the onshore business district and homes.

Demand for entertainment was so great that the pier was rebuilt in time for the next summer season, financed by bond measures sponsored by Kinney's heirs.

As the 1920s progressed, Venice thrived as an entertainment destination, even despite Prohibition, which outlawed alcohol. Venice was a popular destination for both tourists and local residents. Special events were held on the pier and along the beach, including bathing beauty contests, parades, road races, animal acts, and dance marathons.

People could ride on thrilling roller coasters, and ferris wheels, get lost in the fun house where air jets blew up womens' skirts, and you had to walk through rolling barrels and halls of mirrors.

Not only were there movie houses showing films, some of the films themselves were shot right on the beach and in the amusement park, and big stars bought seaside cottages or penthouse apartments in the fine hotels on Ocean Front Walk. Charlie Chaplin, the romantic actor Francis X. Bushman, cowboy star Tom Mix and bathing beauty Fay Tichner were among the movie stars that made Venice their home. The Al G. Barnes Circus performed in Venice, and liked the area so much they decided to make it their Winter Quarters.

But the economy was about to change, and there were new developments that would both enrich Venice and alter Abbott Kinney's plan for it.

What happens to a planned community when the planner is gone?

After we talk about what happened to Venice, think about what the next 100 years will bring for places like this:

Image of Calabasas Commons taken from somewhere on the internet.

I could have shown the obvious, like the Venice resort in Las Vegas, which is way beyond what Abbot Kinney could have imagined. But it seems like everything in Vegas gets torn down and rebuilt after 20 years, disappearing the old. Let's think of our small-time home-grown communities. How will time treat them? Let's explore how California's Venice evolved, and think about how our own fantasy communities will age.

Historic images of Venice, California are taken from the USC Digital Archives.

4 comments:

KathyR said...

I'm particularly fond of the big concrete retaining wall behind The Commons. So purty.

g said...

Yeah. it makes it look like the buildings are little toys, set out on an asphalt-colored rug for someone to play with.

Cheri @ Blog This Mom! said...

Will Venice ever be "memorialized" here, I wonder?

Queenly Things said...

I love Venice, it's history and even it's weird personality of today. It's like an old dowager - a little too much make-up but its class and verve showing through.