Remembering the founding father of Venice — a dream that came to life on July 4, 1905

By Grace Bruno

Abbot Kinney (inset) and a vintage 1905 parcel map depicting his original Venice of America

“What’s an Abbot Kinney?” a friend asked me one day as we walked along Kinney’s namesake boulevard in Venice.

“The man who founded Venice,” I answered incredulously, but also realizing that I didn’t know much more than that myself.

As a longtime local and an author of historical fiction, I decided to unravel the mystery of Mr. Abbot Kinney for myself and share whatever I learned.

I began my research at the Los Angeles Central Library. Librarians Cindy McNaughton and Glen Creason, who located the original Venice of America city map that appears with this story, were extremely helpful.

The map alone is a treasure. Seeing long-gone landmarks like the Ship Hotel, Venice Aquarium and miniature railroad among some familiar and not-so-familiar street and canal names (more on that later) really sparks the imagination of what Kinney’s original Venice of America would have looked like upon its grand opening on July 4, 1905.

But first I studied up on Kinney’s fascinating early life at both the Los Angeles and Santa Monica public libraries. A native of New Jersey born in 1850, Kinney got rich in 1890 after he and his brother sold their tobacco company, Sweet Caporal Cigarettes, which were marketed with collectible trading cards. He traveled throughout Europe and the Middle East in search of inspiration and new ideas before arriving in Los Angeles with powerful visions for land development and social renaissance.

While serving on the California Board of Forestry with “Ramona” author Helen Hunt Jackson, Kinney helped push for a federal inquiry into the welfare of the Mission Indians. He wrote three books of his own and was instrumental in establishing the precursor to today’s Santa Monica Public Library, showing a genuine interest in making the general public more appreciative of knowledge, art and beauty.

Kinney also realized the coastline of Santa Monica Bay closely resembled the climate and geography of sunny Italy, and sought to create a beach community that would foster a cultural renaissance
in the American West. He started his vision in Ocean Park, but dissolved that business partnership to focus exclusively on what’s now Venice.

The original Windward Avenue was bursting with hotels, souvenir shops and bath houses between a manmade lake (today’s Windward Circle) and a Pleasure Pier that featured a civic auditorium hosting speaking engagements by cultural luminaries such as women’s suffrage warrior Susan B. Anthony. The Midway Plaisance boasted an exhibit on Egypt and, on the other side of the cultural coin, attractions such as a Darkness and Dawn Fun House, Temple of Mirth, The Igorots (Filipino headhunters), and Bosco Eats Them Alive Reptiles.

Local historian Jeffrey Stanton’s book “Venice, California: Coney Island of the Pacific” was extremely helpful, especially when it came to understanding the original Venice Canals depicted on the original Venice of America map. I read how, on a Friday afternoon, sluice gates at the foot of Windward opened to allow water to move with the tide through the three miles of the original canal network. I also read that the original canals were too shallow to maintain healthy circulation, which led to serious public health concerns. In 1927, seven years after Kinney died, city officials filled in many of those canals to make them into paved streets.

Yes, Kinney wasn’t perfect. In the 1880s he fell victim to the anti-Chinese xenophobia of his day, but apparently abandoned such hateful ideas by the time he founded Venice. In the end, Kinney’s entrepreneurial faculty and visionary prowess made Venice a global cultural destination, and for that our local founding father deserves to be celebrated.