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A Tale of One Dreamer's City

September 22, 1985|EVELYN De WOLFE

Abbott Kinney and F. G. Ryan purchased a strip of ground adjacent to Santa Monica, established a summer resort there in 1892, and named it Ocean Park.

But Kinney went a bit further. He was a dreamer whose ultimate fantasy was to create a replica of Venice, Italy, complete with canals and gondolas on the edge of the Pacific.

In 1904, he began to implement his plan and before too long his "Venice of America" could rightfully claim that it had the only system of salt water canals in America, its largest skating rink, the largest and most complete lifeguard station on the Pacific Coast and a "magnificent" auditorium built in 28 days that could seat 3,700 and had a $20,000 organ.

Pre-dating Long Beach's ship hotel on the H. M. S. Queen Mary, by several decades, Venice's tourist attractions included the only ship hotel in the world anchored at the waterfront.

A dance pavilion, a miniature railroad and of course, the transportation by gondola along the canals, as well as a salt water plunge and a giant bath house with 600 dressing rooms and 100 enamel tubs, were attractions of the popular resort. From the lake at Venice, looking across Windward Avenue, the scene is recalled by the old-timers as reminiscent of a grand opera setting centered by a huge fountain with broad steps rising to the terraced levels of the city.

Norman F. Marsh and C. H. Russell were the architects hired to design the city, and to prove that his arched Venetian bridges were secure, Kinney had them tested by a troupe of elephants. He also built the Villa City, situated on the banks of the canals and advertised it as "one of the garden spots of America" with affordable accommodations so that all could enjoy the beauty of Venice.

The villas in Venice could be had for $15 and up a month, and some were designed to resemble Japanese bungalows and other architectural styles of faraway places.

The bathing beach at Venice was protected by a concrete sea wall built in 1910, but diverting the ocean current in that fashion proved to be disastrous. Phenomenal tides hit the shores during 1915, causing destruction of a number of beachfront homes and filling the canals with sand.

In 1923, when all previous records of subdivision activity in Southern California were broken, 11,608 acres in Los Angeles County were subdivided into lots and more than 80% were contiguous to Los Angeles. Venice building permits that year shot to $1 million and tripled by 1924.

Today, Venice may bear little resemblance to Kinney's dream, but some of its canals still exist. And so does its enduring appeal to a new generation of dreamers.

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