The picturesque canals of Venice, California, are one of the seaside community's hidden charms, secreted away from the hustle and bustle of the famous boardwalk. But in Venice's early years, the canals that survive today -- restored in the 1990s after decades of neglect -- 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, cigarette baron Abbot 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, preserved today in the Los Angeles Public Library Map Collection. 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, the appropriately named Grand Canal, terminated at a large saltwater bathing lake. Three of the smaller canals referred to heavenly 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 was not yet ascendant, 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, while homeowners navigated the system of waterways by canoe or boat.
Meanwhile, a second set of canals soon 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 helped make Kinney's real estate development a success. 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. 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.
In 1924, the city of Venice -- then still an independent municipality -- resolved to adapt its transportation infrastructure for the automobile age. The two Pacific Electric trolleyways running through the city would be widened and paved -- today they're appropriately named Pacific and Electric avenues -- and the canals would be filled in and converted into public roads.
Residents resisted the move. Those who lived along the canals worried that their homes would lose their waterfront appeal, and many in the community questioned the logic of a city with the name of Venice but no canals. Most importantly, property owners rebelled against a special assessment that would be levied on their holdings to finance the conversion.
Litigation lasted four years. By the time the court battles were finally resolved in the city's favor, Venice had consolidated with Los Angeles. On July 1, 1929, as dump trucks deposited their first loads of dirt into Coral Canal, public officials held a special ceremony. Governor C. C. Young, the Venice Vanguard reported, "congratulated Venice on her foresight in sacrificing sentiment to progress."
By the end of the year, Venice's original canals had been filled in and paved over. (The six canals built to the south of Venice of America were spared, as the area was insufficiently populated to levy the necessary property assessment.) The former swimming lake became a traffic circle, and little evidence remains today of the roads' former lives as saltwater canals. Even the names were changed. Aldebaran Canal became Market Street; Coral Canal, Main Street; Venus Canal, San Juan Avenue; Lion Canal, Windward Avenue. Only Grand Canal retained its former name, becoming Grand Avenue.
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