Secreted away from the hustle and bustle of the famous boardwalk, the picturesque canals of Venice, California, are one of the seaside community’s hidden charms. But in Venice’s early years, the canals that survive today were only a sideshow. The main attraction — the original canals of Abbot Kinney’s Venice of America — are lost to history, long ago filled in and now disguised as residential streets.
In planning Venice of America, Kinney incorporated several references to the community’s Mediterranean namesake, from the Italianate architecture to his fanciful notion of launching a cultural renaissance there. But Venice of America would not have lived up to its name were it not for its canals.
When it opened on July 4, 1905, Venice of America boasted seven distinct canals arranged in an irregular grid pattern, as seen below in Kinney’s master plan for the community. Totaling nearly two miles and dredged out of former saltwater marshlands, the canals encircled four islands, including the tiny triangular United States Island. The widest of them, appropriately named Grand Canal, terminated at a large saltwater lagoon. Three of the smaller canals referred to celestial bodies: Aldebaran, Venus, and Altair.
Though their primary role was to evoke the old world charm of Venice, Italy, the canals also functioned as part of Kinney’s transportation plan for the development. In 1905, the automobile had barely dawned on the Southland, and so Kinney laid out Venice of America at the pedestrian’s scale. Visitors would arrive by interurban streetcar or steam railroad and once there could reach the entire community and its various amusements by footpath. The canals — as well as a miniature railroad that circled the development — provided an alternative to walking. Gondoliers rowed tourists through the canals for a fee, serenading their passengers in Italian. Homeowners, meanwhile, navigated the system of waterways by canoe or boat.
Soon, a second set of canals appeared just south of Kinney’s. Linking up with the existing network through the Grand Canal, these Short Line canals (named after the interurban Venice Short Line) were apparently built to capitalize on the success of Kinney’s development. Their origins are uncertain, but work started soon after Venice of America’s 1905 grand opening, and by 1910 real estate promoters Strong & Dickinson and Robert Marsh were selling lots in what they named the Venice Canal Subdivision. Built almost as an afterthought, these six watercourses are the only Venice canals that survive today.
The original Venice of America canals contributed to the success of Kinney’s real estate development. Lots fronting the canals became a favorite choice for owners of the local amusement concerns or out-of-town tourists looking for a place to pitch a summer cottage. But by the 1920s, the canals had become seen as an obstacle to progress. Poor circulation meant that the water was often polluted. More importantly, many visitors were now arriving by automobile, but Venice offered scarce parking, and its streets were designed for pedestrians, not motorcars. In the eyes of business owners and city leaders, the canals looked like an opportunity to open up their community to the automobile.
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