Founder of Venice
New Jersey-born Abbot Kinney (1850-1920) made his fortune as a cigarette manufacturer, traveled the world, and eventually settled in the San Gabriel Valley in 1880, building a ranch home he called Kinneloa near present-day Sierra Madre. He also entered the real estate business in Santa Monica and with his partner, Francis G. Ryan, founded the community of Ocean Park.
A man of wide-ranging interests, a noted linguist, botanist and member of scientific societies, Kinney wrote books and treatises on subjects as diverse as metaphysics, child-rearing, free trade and the propagation of eucalyptus trees. As chairman of the State Forestry Bureau and road-master in the Santa Monica area, he promoted the planting of thousands of eucalyptus seedlings throughout the region. He also accompanied author Helen Hunt Jackson on research trips among the Mission Indians. These trips resulted in Ramona, an influential novel on the image of southern California and its attraction to tourists.
Kinney is best known as founder of Venice of America, a fanciful beach community south of Ocean Park, known simply as Venice. Built on reclaimed marshland, Venice of America was a planned community constructed in the style of the Venetian Renaissance. It included homes, hotels, businesses, a 1,700-foot pier, an amusement park, a 3,600-seat auditorium, a 2-1/2 mile miniature railway line that looped the entire development (5 cents a ride), and 16 miles of canals and lagoons, complete with gondolas and gondoliers imported from Venice, Italy, the inspiration for Kinney’s dream community.
When storms wrecked the new pier prior to its opening, Kinney received permission to build a private breakwater 60 feet offshore. The community was dedicated on July 4, 1905, with 40,000 people in attendance. At night, 17,000 lamps were lit. Kinney hoped his creation would foster a cultural Renaissance in America. He soon discovered that while the beach and salt water plunge proved attractive, the auditorium lectures and performances did not. Culture gave way to Coney Island-like attractions, and Venice became known as the “Playland of the Pacific." Nature eventually took its toll on Venice of America, and shortly after Abbot Kinney died suddenly on Nov. 20, 1920, the wooden pier was destroyed by fire.
Six canals that had not been paved over were restored in 1993. Today, the Venice boardwalk, with its carnival-like atmosphere, is one of Los Angeles’ premier tourist attractions, but not quite as Abbot Kinney imagined it.
-- contributed by Albert Greenstein, 1999