Close your eyes and imagine a street lined on both sides by three-story hotels designed to capture the flavor of Venice, Italy, featuring an ornate mix of Byzantine and Renaissance influence with distinctive colonnades. That was Windward Avenue in Venice, California in 1905.
Community founder Abbot Kinney died in 1920, and Venice was annexed to Los Angeles in 1925. The ensuing years were not always pleasant — the Great Depression, World War II, and finally in 1947 an arson fire finished off the dismantling of the Venice Pier and all its amusements, begun the year before.
The 1960s brought an end to the colonnaded streetscape, when the Department of Building and Safety initiated a program of code enforcement directed against older Venice structures deemed unsafe. Property owners were ordered to either raze or remove the two top stories.
Jeffrey Stanton, in his book “Venice of America ‘Coney Island of the Pacific,’” states that several property owners tried to obtain landmark status for their buildings along Windward Avenue, nearly all of which had been condemned. Their goal was to have the Cultural Heritage board declare the Venetian-style buildings replicas of those in Venice, Italy, and, therefore, have them preserved for their historic value. The board declared that the buildings were not representative of Southern California architecture, and landmark status was denied.
The late Frank Bennett, who owned Townhouse Cocktails at 52 Windward Ave., said in a 2001 interview that he felt it was a scam.
“The ‘City Fathers’ had the idea that they were going to tear everything down and a new Phoenix was going to arise,” he said. “It wasn’t done for earthquakes. No, it was all political. They wanted to tear Venice down.”
In 1988, the California State Coastal Conservancy initiated a planning and design project focused on enhancing significant community spaces to complement the Venice Land Use Plan. The conservancy proposed a concept for Windward Avenue which continued the arcade-style faÁade east across Pacific Avenue along the sidewalks to Windward Circle.
In 1990, the Venice Historical Society, assisted by architects Marc Appleton and Lewin Wertheimer, submitted “Proposed Guidelines for the Venice Historical Arcade Area” for inclusion in the Land Use Plan and Local Implementation Plan that would preserve and restore the first block of Windward Avenue in keeping with the character and spirit of the original architecture.
In the plan approved by the Coastal Commission it stated that “new development shall maintain and preserve the historical arcade area of Venice and be required, where feasible, to restore or replicate the arcade if they fall within the historic arcade locations.”
In 1992, the Los Angeles City Council passed a motion introduced by Councilwoman Ruth Galanter to include the Windward Historic Arcade District in the Venice Local Coastal Plan and Venice Community Plan. At that time, there were two projects related to the arcades — one planned and one completed.
The late Bob Goodfader, who owned Sidewalk Café and Small World Book Store with his wife Mary, and partners planned to build “Ocean Front Arcade,” a 29,522-square foot building at 1501 Ocean Front Walk that would use the arcade concept and include retail, restaurants and residential units. It was intended to replace an expanse of asphalt and hark back to the St. Marks Hotel, which was originally at that location and torn down in the 1960s.
“About the time we received our approvals, the economy took a dive and construction costs went way up,” says Sidewalk Enterprise CEO Steve Heumann. “After we had a cost estimator study the plans and give us a final cost estimate, and considering the new economic environment, we had to make the hard decision not to go forward; the project just wasn’t economically viable.”
The first proposal for the late artist Robert Graham’s “Venetian Vision” at 67 Windward Ave. called for replacing the historic colonnades. A model of the faÁade with redesigned capitals and columns then appeared along with information that project and demolition permits had been approved. This caused great concern to the Venice Historical Society.
In short, the Venice Arcades, Columns and Capitals at 67—71 Windward Ave. were declared by the Cultural Heritage Commission as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1991. But the decision did not affect Graham’s project, because the originals were destroyed and, instead, replaced with an overhang.
The Venice Historical Society received a City of Los Angeles Community Beautification Grant to start on the restoration of the remaining columns. Historical society president Jill Prestup recalls that during a meeting with renowned author Ray Bradbury, “he blurted out ‘I love Venice. I want to help restore the columns’” and offered to make an initial contribution. Since this will be an ongoing project, it was decided to hold a fundraiser to allow more columns to be restored.
It is evident in Bradbury’s comments that Venice is still special to him.
“I lived in Venice for a good many years, starting when I was 21, and wandered down to the main section with all those wonderful arches on my way to buy supplies for my typewriter; this was back in the days when I had only sold one or two short stories,” he says.
“I loved the look of Venice and loved living there and felt that someday they’d clean up the canals and re-paint the houses. Somewhere along the line the wonderful arches were torn down and destroyed. It killed my soul because along with everybody else I’d seen the wonderful Orson Wells film ‘Touch of Evil,’ which used Venice as the background.
“I truly want to restore the look of Venice to the way it was when I was a young man. I hope that everyone in Venice will show up at the event and provide the support that we need to make Venice just as beautiful as it was in days long gone.”
The Venice Historical Society and Bradbury, who will attend the event, have scheduled the Ray Bradbury Adopt-a-Colonnade Restoration Project at 7 p.m. Friday, July 31st at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. Episodes from the 1985 Ray Bradbury Theater will be shown and champagne along with desserts will be served. To pay for admission online, www.venicehistorical.org/. Information, (310) 967-5170.