It all started in 1894, when John Metcalf bought mostly marshy ranch land consisting of 55 acres for $3,000. It was part of the original La Ballona Rancho, owned by Jose Juan Machado. Eleven years later, on July 18th, 1905, this land just east of and adjoining the original Venice of America tract was purchased by a syndicate and was platted into 384 lots and put on the market as the Venice Gateway Tract.
The most intriguing and appealing aspect of it was that the electric train line ran near it. As the interest in Venice property was at a peak, 175 lots were sold for more than $200,000 in just a couple of days and the promoters expected to close it all out within a week for more than $400,000. A year prior, this property would not have brought $40,000.
But who was this “syndicate” that purchased Metcalf’s ranch? This is what intriguedÝme. I found out that one of the major players around Venice — or actually Ocean Park as the town was called back then — was Dana Burks. And here’s where the story opens up.
In 1897, Burks was elected secretary of the “Street Naming Commission” of the Los Angeles City Council on renaming streets. In 1903, they published an official “Map of the City of Los Angeles,” compiled from official surveys under the supervision of Burks, and showing all the 326 changes made by the commission and approved by the City Council. Burks was making a name for himself among the city officials. And a name for himself business-wise as well.
In 1902, it was reported that Dana Burks was elected vice president of the Ocean Park Country Club, which had opened on August 2nd. This was located between Club House and Westminster Avenues, just east of Trolleyway — now Pacific Avenue — a part of Abbot Kinney’s development then called South Ocean Park.
Then, on February 23rd, 1904, the first meeting of the Ocean Park Board of City Trustees was held, during which Burks was nominated as president of the council and mayor of Ocean Park. It referred to Burks’ activity as organizer of the Ocean Park Country Club, local resident and president of the Chamber of Commerce, and his work in many ways for the “upbuilding” of the town. The vote was unanimous, and was considered a worthy compliment in recognition of his services to further the status of Ocean Park.
So here it was. Dana Burks was the first mayor of Ocean Park — which would soon become Venice.
“The Duke of Ocean Park,” as Burks was sometimes referred to, opened his “Venice Annex” for sale in July 1905. The whole tract, which was one of the sensations of the seaside boom back then, was disposed of in just two days.
A Mrs. E.J. Slauson, it was reported on December 17th, 1907, bought six lots in various parts of the tract at the time, shown to her by Burks personally, who told her that he had reserved five of the choicest lots for himself, intending to build one of the finest residences in the country. He then changed his mind, and sold the site to a Japanese curio dealer, and then afterward took it back.
When the tract was first sold to her, Burks and others represented to her — falsely, she claimed — that their map had been regularly platted and filed for record. She said the company and Burks knew perfectly well at the time that it had not been. Afterward, she claimed, the tract was re-platted and resurveyed, and in a new form accepted by Ocean Park. In the process, however, part of her best lots were sliced off. Some of the streets of the first tract had disappeared altogether and had become parks.
This is where, I believe, the unique character of the whole walk-street community came into play. These little parks would become the vest-pocket mid-block traffic circles, for pedestrians no less, so uncommon throughout the rest of Venice, or Los Angeles for that matter, but uniquely held precious to those who know and love them among the walk streets today.
These little traffic circles, on every block of Marco, Nowita and Amoroso, along with the traffic circle on Shell Avenue, just drew me in, pushing me to find out who designed these perambulatories. I just had to find the source. So off to City Hall I went, hooking up with Greg Fischer, who knows everything about Los Angeles history. After only a few minutes, he produced the original tract map — or at least a copy of it — for me to peruse. It held many answers to the mysteries of this astounding section of Venice.
First off, due to the Venice Short Line tracks curving north from Center Street — today’s Venice Boulevard — along what’s Electric Avenue, it created a unique instance of breaking the traditional grid effect in the layout of the streets and walkways. Thus, we get Crescent Place and the aforementioned Shell Avenue roundabout, which I would say is the first traffic circle in Venice, if not all of L.A. And in keeping with the cozy atmosphere created originally by the “walkstreets” along the North Beach section of Venice, these were incorporated into the neighborhood design as well. Without the automobile, the fronts of the properties became accessible via the sidewalks, making for a true neighborhood feeling. As desired 100-plus years ago as they are today.
A closer look at the map shows that Palms Boulevard back then was called Naples Avenue, and Lincoln Boulevard was called the Compton & Santa Monica Road. It was surveyed by Philip Schuler, civil engineer, in August 1905. So I guess Mrs. Slauson’s claim of re-platting and resurveying was true. The owners, under the name of The Union Trust Company, with J.H. Braly as president, included Dana Burks, himself a reputable banker at that time. The trust’s reason for buying the land today remains unclear. It may have just been speculation. It was recorded on September 12th, 1905, however, so things were off and officially running.
So there you have it from an early outback not worth much to the hipness of today’s Hollywood scene, with a whole lot of walking in between. Got to love the walkstreets!