In May 1986, there was a small announcement in the Los Angeles Times. It was a call to form a Venice Historical Society.
The driving force was Don Tollefson, president of the society from 1986 to 1988 and from 1994 to 1998. He was also a member of the Los Angeles Conservancy.
“I thought that Venice needed to be involved but it quickly became apparent that it was like apples and oranges,” he says. “We had a lot of resources and it occurred to me that we had to start our own organization.”
The first meeting, in September 1986, raised seed money. Nine people donated $100 each to become co-founders — Joan del Monte, Betsy Goldman, Helga Hanssen, George Lenny, Vivi Wiitala, Phil Parlett, Don Tollefson, Mary Jane Weil and the Venice-Marina Board of Realtors.
Several months later, Charles Christensen, Lila Shanley, the Executive Savings and Loan Assoc., Thomas Safran and Associates and the Venice-Marina Lions Club also signed up as co-founders.
The first individual members were Lucille Cappas, Dell Chumley Morgan, Bert and Helen Fallon, Laura Harrison, Ben and Pat Johnson, Michael Marsden, Patrick McCartney, Dr. Timothy and Rebecca Poston, Hank and Lisa Seligsohn and Redwood Realty.
The Venice Historical Society was off to a good start. Its purpose became to increase public awareness of Venice’s irreplaceable historic culture and architectural resources, to gather and disseminate information useful in the preservation of structures and neighborhoods of Venice and to engage in such educational activities that will promote the preservation and enhancement of the important features of Venice.
“Venice has one of the most interesting histories of any community in the area,” says Mary Jane Weil, society president from 2002 to 2006. “It’s just critical that we have a historical society, especially now that Venice is changing and some of the old guard are either passing away or moving on. It’s more important than ever.
“The whole story of Abbot Kinney and how he created the city — the buildings, the colonnades, the amusements on the pier — it makes for such a unique story that people need to remember it.”
The Venice Historical Society has conducted numerous activities through the years that have helped educate the public about Venice’s heritage.
The society’s walking tours have included one of Ocean Front Walk and another highlighting points of history to Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica.
At the Woodlawn Cemetery are buried at the Kinney family (Abbot Kinney was the founder of Venice in 1905), the Reese family (the first African American family of Venice), the Chiaffarelli family (Manfredi Chiaffarelli was the bandmaster that Kinney brought from Italy to entertain at the pier every day for years) and the Machado family (the original owners of the land where Venice is now located).
Landmark building tours have featured Kinney’s home, now at 1310 Sixth Ave.; the Venice City Hall; the Venice Jail, on Venice Boulevard; the original Venice Library and the Miniature Railroad Station on Abbot Kinney Boulevard.
Meetings, held at the Venice Library and sometimes at other locations, feature topics of interest to the public.
Some meetings have been slide shows by Venice High School historian Tom Anderson, Pacific Electric Railway historian Milt Slade and film historian Marc Wanamaker among many others.
Presentations have included discussions on the Santa Monica Bay lifeguards and the Japanese heritage in Venice.
Some longtime residents have received special awards from the society.
“Venice was so beautiful and so original because of the colonnades, the cottages, the miniature railway, the canals, the pier,” says Jill Prestup, incoming president. “It was so unique that we have to bring out the awareness in people that it’s important to save our rich history, especially our ‘Living Legends’ — the stories they tell.”
Perhaps one of the most popular meetings was a reunion of still-living Venice 1950s Beat poets at Sponto Gallery in 1993.
The audience was regaled by Frank Rios, Tony Scibella and John Thomas, reading from the work of Stuart Perkoff.
Issues of the Venice Historical Society Journal, as its newsletter is called, are graced with colorful pictures or postcards harking back to the early days of Venice.
Inside are interesting bits of Venice trivia, articles taken from the Venice Vanguard, Venice’s first newspaper, and article excerpts from contemporary authors who write about the history of Venice.
Elayne Alexander, Venice historian and society president from 1998 to 2002, has researched the history of numerous communities.
“In the 25 years that I’ve been researching Venice I’ve never found another town that has a similar or more exciting history,” she says.
Elayne is currently working on a book about Kinney, titled The Lion of Venice, that should be out within a year.
It has become even more important to save what is left of early Venice before there is no longer any trace of the Venice that was created by Kinney.
In the 1960s, the City of Los Angeles, in its infinite wisdom, decided that the third story of the ornate Byzantine structures built by Kinney on the first block of Windward Avenue had to be removed for seismic reasons.
This also eliminated the majority of the columned arcades —now seen only in old photos and on postcards.
In 1991, a section of the “Venice Arcades, Columns and Capitals” on Windward Avenue was declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument as a deterrent to its imminent demolition.
But that didn’t do any good — they were demolished anyway.
Subsequently, Ruth Galanter, councilwoman at the time, proposed a motion for a “Windward Historic Arcade” that states: “New development shall maintain and preserve the historical arcade of Venice and be required, where feasible, to restore or replicate the arcade if they fall within the historic arcade locations.”
It is now incorporated into the Venice Local Coastal Program.
Other locations and buildings have been deemed important enough to honor with the Historic-Cultural Monument designation.
They are the Venice Canal System, the Venice Police Station (685 Venice Blvd., home of SPARC, Social and Public Art Resource Center), the Venice City Hall (681 Venice Blvd., home of Beyond Baroque Foundation) and “Binoculars,” the four-story sculpture at 340 Main St. designed by world-renowned artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, which is the focal point of the main faÁade of a Frank Gehry-designed office building.
In addition to the city level, the federal National Register of Historic Places has been bestowed on the Venice Canal Historic District, the old Venice Branch Library (610 California Ave., now the Vera Davis Center), the Venice of America Home (1223 Cabrillo Ave.) and the Warren Wilson Beach House (15 Ave 30, now The Venice Beach House).
Ten years ago, the tenth anniversary of the Venice Historical Society was held at The Venice Beach House, and Kendrick Kinney, grandson of Venice founder Abbot Kinney, presented a slide lecture on his grandfather and the early years in Venice.
Ten years later, on Sunday, August 20th, in recognition of its 20th anniversary, the society will once again celebrate at The Venice Beach House.
This time the special guest will be Ray Bradbury, renowned author, poet, essayist, screenwriter and former Venice resident.
A champagne breakfast will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
The deadline for tickets is Monday, August 14th. To obtain an invitation, go to www.venice ofamerica.org or call (310) 967-5170 to have one mailed to you.
This will be a perfect opportunity for those of you new to Venice to learn about its history and to have fun. There will be local entertainment and a silent auction.