|Nettie Bouck - the face in the columns.
A couple weeks ago I found myself standing in line at the post office, staring at the mural of Abbot Kinney and the old Venice beach of amusement piers and oil wells, painted by the WPA artist Edward Biberman, in 1941. And as I gazed at it, I began to think about other prominent figures still visible around Venice. Ones that immediately came to mind were the faces on the column heads along Windward Avenue. You know, the squire-looking fellow and the fair damsel appearing lady. Who were these people? They must have come from somewhere.
Propitiously, I recently came across the series of articles from The Argonaut called "In Venice," written by Tom Moran. Man, was that guy ahead of the times! He knew, and still knows, more about Venice history than probably the entire readership of this newsletter combined, present company included. And there it was, the story of the first lady of Venice to be immortalized on the capitals of these columns.
Here, reproduced from his article published January 2nd, 1975, is the story of "The face on Windward Avenue"…
Windward Avenue and parts of Ocean Front Walk are still decorated by rows of columns supporting the old arcades of Venice of America. If one stops for a moment and examines this architecture carefully, he will notice that the capital of each column is decorated with reliefs of two faces, one male and one female.
These cast iron sculptures were done by Felix Peano, an Italian sculptor whose work achieved more than a modest degree of fame at the turn of the century. Peano was an intimate friend of Jack London and was well known in the San Francisco Bay area. He was employed by Abbot Kinney to add his embelishments to the dream called Venice of America.
The faces on the columns are classical in style, easily traceable to the influence of ancient Rome. Yet Peano did not go all the way back in time for his inspiration. He found it in a young girl of 17 who was living on the ocean front in 1904, watching Venice grow around her.
"It was almost an embarrassing moment," explains Nettie Bouck. "Felix Peano was at our house, actually at that time it was the house of my future father-in-law, Mr. Bouck. I don’t know why. He just all of a sudden reached out and grabbed me. He was an Italian gentleman and very, very emotional. And he held my face, my hands, put his hands on my face and looked at it."
Peano insisted that he would use those features in the work he was doing for Mr. Kinney. They showed up as the female face atop the Windward Avenue pillars. "Well, it was not a likeness of me, but the face, the contours of my face, gave him the idea to use it for the heads on the columns. There was really no big story or history about it," insists Mrs. Bouck, "except that he got a little bit over-enthusiastic I guess."
Peano was a regular visitor to the Bouck’s Ocean Front home. "He came to the house for dinner. He was always welcome. He just… you know, being a sculptor and an artist, how they act. I was just a young girl. I didn’t think much about it except that I wasn’t used to all the action."
The Boucks lived on what is now Ocean Front in one of the few houses that preceded the coming of Abbot Kinney. Mr. C. Aley Bouck had moved to the beach in 1897 with his wife, Cora. Miss Nettie Robinson, daughter of the sheriff of Stockton, was visiting at the time. A short time later, in 1906, she would marry the Bouck’s son, C. Harnish Bouck, and join the family to watch Venice rise from the sand.
"We knew there was something going on but we didn’t know what. And all of a sudden comes a ship out in front unloading pilings. They began floating them in and there were crews who came and with big hooks brought them up on top of the sand of the beach which was right in front of our house.
"We saw all of that knowing that something was doing. Well of course it wasn’t long until all developed into a pier and then, well just one thing led to another and there were buildings."
Nettie Robinson’s future husband was employed in the surveying crew which began defining the new town, locating the streets and canals of Venice of America. His boss was the general contractor, Captain Augustus Stuzter, and a government engineer, Mr. Rabinow. The building continued until a fierce March storm crept up to destroy the infant city.
"It wiped out everything. The pier, I might say, was half built. The Ship Hotel and the big auditorium out at the end of the pier. The Pavilion at the beginning of the pier. All those were just wrecked completely. There was debris in the ocean for days and days. It went as far down as Redondo.
"Not only that but most of that pier came up and sat on our front porch. It was a terrible, terrible storm and our house, being where it was, was completely surrounded by debris. It was a couple days before we could even get out of the house. Everybody knew that there we were, but nobody could get to us and we couldn’t get to anybody else. We were just practically marooned for at least 36 hours before the wrecking crew got us out. But there was not one board broken in the construction of that house. Not one board."
The marriage of Nettie Robinson and C. Harnish Bouck was the very first to take place in what was called Venice of America. They opened a small grocery store on Center Street (now Venice Boulevard), the first in town. For a period Mr. Bouck was in charge of the miniature locomotives that circled the city, know as the Venice Scenic Railroad. When the engineers at the powerhouse walked out and left the utility plant untended, Mr. Bouck went in and took over as chief engineer of the Kinney Company.
The new Mrs. Bouck became active in the city’s social life and was corresponding secretary for the Pick and Shovel Club, an early women’s civic organization. When the foundation of Abbot Kinney’s bathhouse was scheduled to be dynamited by the city fathers for encroaching on city property, Mrs. Bouck and her fellow Pick and Shovelers sat on the concrete structure, saving it from oblivion.
Mrs. Bouck was present in the auditorium when the French actress, Sarah Bernhardt, performed in Venice as part of her American tour. There was much to do in the blooming city and the frequent balls at the Pavilion were so exclusive that the prominent Doheny family almost found themselves barred on night.
The Boucks later lived in a home which lay just behind the Venice Fire Station on Lorelei Street. The volunteer fire crew would combat station boredom by visiting their neighbors in the afternoons and listening to the Bouck’s victrola. When an alarm sounded, the men would leap over the fence and head for duty. More than once they caught Chief Hubbard’s vocal wrath for such a practice.
Today Mrs. Bouck lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. She left Venice almost 50 years ago but still remembers it as a town that grew up around her. Venice remembers Nettie Bouck through the face looking out from the columns along its streets and walks.
…Wow, what a cool lady and what a great life she must have lived. She’s now probably riding in that great gondola in the sky, seeing that she’d be 118 years young today. But still, her countenance gazes down on us luckily, as another Venice first that we can all enjoy, appreciate and view as often as possible. Here’s to you, Nettie!