When tobacco magnate Abbot Kinney’s vision for Venice of America was realized more than a century ago, it was the “Red Cars” of the Pacific Electric Railway that were a primary transportation mode for the visitors who came to tour the seaside resort influenced by the historic Italian city.
The Red Cars of the mass transit system were frequently visible in the early part of the 20th century as they crisscrossed cities in Southern California, traveling routes such as Venice Boulevard into the then newly developed community of Venice.
A heritage foundation in Venice is now hoping to bring back that connection to the beachside community’s early days by restoring an old Pacific Electric trolley car to be used as a centerpiece of a new proposed Venice Heritage Museum.
Members of the Venice Heritage Foundation say the Orange Empire Railway Museum has offered to donate a 1904 Red Car to be incorporated into the museum project, which they plan to create at Centennial Park. The site along Venice Boulevard is a fitting location for such a museum, as the original Pacific Electric Railway system used to run nearby until service stopped in the 1950s, members said.
“It’s important for us to have an iconic building and the Red Car is a part of Venice history,” said Heritage Foundation member Stephen Pouliot, who lives in one of the oldest homes in Venice.
“This will not only be a museum to display a piece of history, but it will be an artifact in itself. What a magnificent goal; as people drive down Venice Boulevard, an iconic building will be at the gateway.”
The Red Car concept for the museum is modeled after the Seal Beach Historical Museum, which has a restored Pacific Electric Tower Car for its facility.
The foundation has initiated the effort to bring a heritage museum to Venice because, although the community has a unique history with a rich arts and cultural background, there is currently no official place to display historical artifacts, members say. Heritage Foundation president Todd von Hoffman noted that the closest type of place that pays homage to Venice history, with items such as an old gondola and vintage photographs, is Danny’s Venice Deli on Windward Avenue.
Some of the foundation members have been collecting various historical items over the years, such as old photographs, clothing pieces and other memorabilia, and they hope to put those on display to agive residents and museum visitors a link to the past.
“We’re fortunate to have this fascinating history in Venice,” von Hoffman said. “We need to have a place where all these wonderful things can be seen.”
Foundation vice president Paul Tanck said the new museum will be a significant resource because it will create a common space to share and display the “fabulous collections” from Venice.
“By restoring an old Pacific Electric car, which was part of the original lifeblood of Venice, the Heritage Foundation hopes to engage the entire community in becoming more aware of the splendor of Venice’s history. And by doing so, reclaim and extend the glory of Venice’s historical significance,” Tanck said.
While Venice may not have the long storied history of cities on the East Coast, the seaside community has its own distinct heritage as a place modeled after the Italian city of canals, with ties to the Beat poets and musical legends such as The Doors.
“It’s a world class destination,” Pouliot said. “We have a rich and complex past.”
Foundation historian Elayne Alexander added, “Venice itself will make this museum unique. No one has a history like ours.”
The foundation is currently in the process of seeking community support for the project and members say the proposal has been well received. The Venice Neighborhood Council voted last month to approve a letter of support for the museum at Centennial Park, permitting the foundation to display the council logo on promotional materials.
Neighborhood Council president Mike Newhouse called the concept of incorporating the history museum into a restored Red Car a “great idea” and said it will allow residents, particularly youths, to learn more about the place where they live.
“Venice definitely needs a museum like this,” Newhouse said. “I think it’s important because people can lose touch with a community if they don’t know the history of where they live.”
Von Hoffman noted that a primary factor in the development of the museum is to provide a facility to help educate the younger members of the Venice community about its distinct history.
“What makes the project most attractive to me is having a place where we can have local schools go through and get the Venice story,” the foundation president said. “I can’t diminish the importance of relaying this legacy to our youth.”
The museum project proposal involves two phases, with the first being the restoration of the Red Car donated by the Orange Empire Railway Museum. As part of the second stage, a pagoda style “Tokio” substation that at one time stood on Venice Boulevard will be recreated. The pagoda structure will have additional exhibits, research space and a gift shop.
With the addition of the restored Red Car and Tokio substation pagoda for the new heritage museum, foundation members hope to establish a new community gathering place at Centennial Park, the gateway to the community.
“This will be a vital new community space and it will become a new landmark for Venice,” Pouliot said.