Venice gondola restoration is a journey into the living legacy of Arthur Reese

By Gary Walker

Sonya Reese Greenland says the gondola makes her feel closer to her late grandfather, Venice’s original town decorator
Photos by Maria Martin

While growing up in Venice, Sonya Reese Greenland didn’t realize that her grandfather had left an indelible imprint on the cultural fabric of the community.

Stewart Oscars knew even less about the late Arthur Reese, an original patriarch of Venice’s black community and the original town decorator who helped Venice of America developer Abbot Kinney bring his vision to life.

Brought together by a desire to preserve a piece of Venice’s storied past, they have been working with local historians and community advocates to refurbish a Reese-designed gondola modeled after those that traveled Kinney’s original early 1900s canal system, which Kinney had granted Reese an exclusive franchise to operate.

Oscars, a carpenter who has lived in Venice for 25 years, has been painstakingly restoring the 26-foot-long flat-bottomed blue canoe in a corner of the Venice Post Office since last fall, learning much about gondolas and Reese along the way.

“It’s a revelation that Arthur Reese was such an important character in the history of Venice and not many people know about him. He was unknown to me until recently. I never knew that he was this prime force in gondolas. We’re resurrecting his legacy with this gondola,” said Oscars, formerly a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council.

Reese designed this particular gondola in the 1950s and oversaw its construction by Venice High School students as a decoration for a now defunct savings and loan on Lincoln Boulevard. After a series of bank acquisitions, the gondola became the property of Chase Bank, which donated it to the Venice Historical Society.

In 2011 the gondola went on public display at Windward Circle, which in Kinney’s day had been a prominent Grand Canal lagoon where dozens of gondolas would float through town, but was later removed after it fell into serious disrepair. Venice Stakeholders Association President Mark Ryavec, who introduced Oscars to the project, made a handshake deal with the local postmaster to keep the gondola on a secure patch of post office green space. The association raised funds to hire a landscaping firm to clean up the space, which in the near future may become a more permanent display area.

Venice Historical Society President Jill Prestup has researched the history of African Americans in Venice and has always been intrigued by the stories of the Reese family and their cousins, the Tabors, who followed Arthur Reese to Venice after Kinney promoted Reese to town decorator.

Reese’s creations in the early days of Venice included building gondolas for the canals, hanging mirrored mosaic spheres from the roof of the original Venice Pier ballroom — an early iteration of the disco ball — and constructing oversized plaster of Paris heads for revelers to wear at Mardi Gras celebrations.

“He was a very important part of the cultural aspect of Venice because everyone would come here for entertainment, and his designs were all over Venice. In fact, Venice had a float in the Rose Parade in the early part of the 20th century that was designed by Arthur Reese,” Prestup said.

Reese, a serial entrepreneur who launched numerous janitorial and concessions businesses, would later in life travel the country to speak at black colleges, recalls his granddaughter.

“Growing up in Venice, Grandfather was just Grandfather. I didn’t grow up with the stories that others did. He would tell us about other prosperous blacks around the United States on Sunday morning at his house, but he never mentioned himself or his part in the history of Venice,” Reese Greenland said. “So this is been a good experience for me too, to learn more about my history, which is Venice history.”

Stewart Oscars says restoring the gondola has been “a revelation”
Photo by Maria Martin

Oscars, who had never worked on a boat before, researched the construction and history of gondolas in Venice, Italy, in preparation for restoring the gondola. Efforts to preserve historic gondolas there “parallel to what we’re doing here,” he found.

Over many months Oscars has reinforced the distinctive raised front of the gondola — called a ferro, it’s designed to protect the boat in the event of a collision — and rebuilt the forcula, used to lock in the oar. He’s also added armrests, a seatback and is searching for a suitable oar.

“Initially I just thought we would be fixing the holes in the hull and replacing things that were broken. I had no idea how bad it was damaged, and no idea that once we started we would be thinking about improving it,” Oscars said.

Arthur Reese grew up in Louisiana near the Cane River, and Reese Greenland said that’s where he learned how to build Venice of America’s gondolas.

“Because their rivers went up and down, the gondola was the most practical boat that you could have because the flat bottom would go through shallow water and the narrow part would go through rapids,” she explained.

Reese Greenland remembers many of her family members getting injured from their prolific building and carpentry work. While she did her share of sawing and cutting in her youth, Reese Greenland decided as a teenager that woodworking would not be in her future. Instead she became a nurse, a teacher and later branched out into residential property management.

“I said early on that I am not going to lose the tip of my fingers,” recalled Reese Greenland recalled, laughing.

The Venice Historical Society had big plans for displaying the gondola at Windward Circle. They raised funds for a beautification project and obtained funding from L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s office for landscaping and a fence to discourage vandalism.

After the gondola fell into grave disrepair, however, Prestup said L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin’s office ordered it to be removed, despite a previous agreement with council predecessor Bill Rosendahl to keep the gondola at Windward Circle. Prestup said a council office deputy told her there had been complaints about the gondola, and that the only artwork permitted in the circle was the torso sculpture created by late Venice artist Robert Graham. She also said the city Bureau of Sanitation moved it last year — without notifying her — to the back lot of Bonin’s Westchester field office. Bonin’s office declined to comment on the matter.

Prestup persuaded the owner of Bruffy’s Tow to store the gondola at his Del Rey yard until she found another place for it, which is where it sat until Ryavec secured space at the post office.

“It seemed to me for several years that that [post office] garden was the perfect location for the gondola. We have raised a modest amount to eventually landscape the garden, but that will follow the restoration of the gondola and new fencing, assuming we can raise the funds,” Ryavec said.

For Reese Greenland, standing next to the gondola evokes a deeper sense of connection with her grandfather.

“I feel him there,” she said. “If you can imagine this feeling like there’s a bunch of disjointed pieces inside me, when I stand next to something that he did it puts a couple more of those pieces together.”

She hopes the gondola will someday grace the collections of a Venice Historical Society Museum, a cause that Prestup has been working to advance for years.

“I want a museum because our history continues to exist. I want it to go beyond my daughter and my granddaughter. This gondola unites what Venice was then with the present,” Reese Greenland asserted.

Prestup, who Reese Greenland says has helped her fill in the blanks about her family’s legacy, said restoring the gondola shows that the community’s history is worth saving.

“Venice needs to preserve its rich, unique cultural history,” Prestup said. “We’ve destroyed and let others destroy a lot of the cultural landmarks and the cultural heritage that we have, so any kind of resurrection of our cultural past is monumental.”