Over and Under Windward

Imagine, if you will, stepping onto the wooden, electric trolley car, destined for that new town, all the way out there at the beach. Take a seat, please, and enjoy your expectant ride westward through the sights of western downtown Los Angeles, immediately into the countryside leading to the lima beanfields and truck farm crops of what would become Mar Vista. Until finally you can feel the difference in the temperature, the humidity, the entire feeling of the landscape you were looking forward to finally visiting.

You’d seen the advertisements in the paper, and you’re sorry you missed out on the big opening festivities just a few weeks earlier. But now you’re off to that new "Playland of the Pacific," and all that may involve. You’ve heard that there’s a 1,700-foot-long pier there, a hot saltwater plunge, and also a “fine electrical display,” and you’re gonna be the best tourist ever to this new town along the coastline. Yes, sir-eee…

The Venice Shortline car turns the corner northward at today’s South Venice Blvd and Pacific, and slowly pulls to a stop a few blocks later, making sure not to collide with any of the many errant pedestrians. I guess this must be the place, you surmise, as everyone else is getting off, and the new, vibrant surroundings actually feel like you might be visiting an exotic, foreign country.

And as you turn and face towards the commanding Pacific Ocean, along the dirt street of Windward Ave, you notice a shadow at your feet. And there it is. From overhead. The confirmation that you’d actually made it, your destination.

Up above, with 3-foot high letters hung in a graceful curved arc, you see it, the announcing sign - V E N I C E. All decked-out in light bulbs - can’t wait to see them all lit up later tonight! - and a fresh coat of paint. Stringing across the broad avenue, spelling out the place to be in 1905. The welcoming icon of the new century. Or as Abbot Kinney put it, “To see Venice is to live;“ not Kinney’s Folly at all. No, sir-eee…

“This wonderful marquee ultimately appeared in countless postcards throughout the ensuing years and became a visual symbol for this city, much as the Santa Monica Pier and Hollywood signs function today,” so says present-day Venetian Todd von Hoffman. “But the sign disappeared sometime after the late 30s and we have yet to find a witness to her demise. It may have fallen into disrepair; it may have been scrapped for a WWII metal drive - who knows? Do you?”

Today, a group of citizens, enthusiasts and business owners, under Todd’s diligence, are working to bring back this historic sign with the help of our neighborhood and city councils. The Venice Sign Restoration Project has been awarded a $10,000 Neighborhood Beautification Grant and is supported by the Venice Chamber of Commerce and the Venice Community Trust. It also received overwhelming support at the recent forum held by the Venice Arts Council.

“Today, anyone interested in old Venice and her history, comes to the same conclusion. They look back on the original dream of Abbot Kinney, and in appreciation, realize we must get the sign back,” von Hoffman emphatically states. “Mark Sokol, owner of the Marina Pacific Hotel on Pacific Ave, tried to resurrect it in the past. But last year’s centennial really gave us the impetus. And now, luckily, all the major property owners in the Windward district are behind this idea 100%.”

“Jose Bunge and Mark Wurm, the building owners of the original sign’s foundations, were behind it right from the start. These owners are excited about the revitalization of the gateway to Venice. They feel like it’s their sign.”

The only real drawback to its erection, it seems, is the legal matters arising from having a public structure, the sign, being attached to private buildings, and all the legal ramifications that ensue. It seems the way around this is to have the new sign suspended by reinforced light poles, replacing the existing ones at the corner, that now support the traffic signals and street lights.

And in keeping with the times, the new sign will feature L.E.D. technology, so that the total power used to light the sign would equal that of two 60-watt bulbs in your home, according to von Hoffman.

Acknowledging this upsurge in local sentiment, Mark-Antonio Grant, Southern District Director of Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s office recently stated, “There has been SERIOUS discussion within the Venice community about getting the sign project moving. The latest proposal is to have the sign be suspended by connecting poles on both sides of the street, there at the entrance of Windward, right at Pacific.

“I will be meeting soon, right there at Windward and Pacific, along with several community members, to go over the size and shape of this proposal. If all goes well, I think that this could come to full fruition within the next two months.”

To which Todd immediately replied, “Thanks Mark - let's hope the idea flys!”

“We're going to MAKE it fly,” countered Grant. “It's one of my missions here. I feel that the energy and commitment that we have with the serious brain trusts of Windward gives us a momentum that can't be denied. I honestly believe that. So, for those who are not in touch with what is happening, please move out of the way because the train is coming through.”

“So it all hinges on the meeting with the Street Services and the Engineering Departments, to determine the feasibility of this dream. With such a positive new monument for the community, and with few public ideas that Venetians can ultimately agree on, it seems like a slam dunk that this new sign would bring a local sense of renewed pride and an identity to the history of this remarkable place,” said von Hoffman.

To help further that cause, featuring replicas of old, hard to find posters and images from Venice’s olden days for sale, the Venice Sign Restoration Project recently made a killing at the 22nd Abbot Kinney Festival. And hopefully helped raise the consciousness of more of the local citizens to their inevitable historic cause. Like their promotional flyer stated, “C’mon Venice - relight the sign!” And it rightly will be relit, if we have anything to say about it!!

But did you know that while all this folderol was going on above Windward Ave back in the day, another whole scene was actively happening under the asphaltic macadam of the roadway? As planned out early-on by the designers of Venice-of-America, Kinney’s architects incorporated several innovative building concepts into the town. By digging several interconnecting tunnels under the alleyways in the Windward business district, they were able to pump hot salt water to the hotel rooms, and rid the area of unsightly power lines, while also allowing hotel guests to pass under the Ocean Front Walk and gain access to the beach in their bathing attire. For shame getting caught in public in those lude, all-woolen swimming costumes!

And these tunnels were also put to nefarious uses as well. During the Prohibition era, it’s been a common rumor that those same tunnels were used to run bootleg liquor from the pier to the speakeasy and bordello located under the present day Townhouse bar. Dan Bennett, son of original owner Frank, can take you on a tour of these old catacombs.

Local electro-wizard Larry Albright remembers first-hand visiting the tunnels beneath the old Gas House, located at Market and Ocean Front Walk, when he lived behind it from 1961 to 1963. He said, “there were definitely a lot of merchandise and women transported along that tunnel from the old Gas House down towards Windward.” And then he let out a big, knowing laugh.

Another particularly enthusiastic first person account was written for the Venice Vanguard newspaper, by Telford Work in August of 1916. Here is his story…

“What could you tell me about underground Venice, Mr. Kinney?” I asked the Doge of Venice this morning. Mr. Kinney smiled meditatively and a twinkle came into his bright blue eyes as he stopped walking and started to speak.

“Underground Venice?” he repeated the question ruminatively. “Well, that’s a new one on me, young man; that’s a new one. But I don’t know but that it’s a pretty good phrase. I guess I know what you want to find out.”

And straightaway the father of Venice proceeded in a very interesting manner to relate the story of the creation of underground Venice, while I, with open ears, and for all I know open mouth, sat and listened.

Many and many a time have I lain in bed as the clock hand crept toward the wee small figures on the right hand side of the dial, and with my hair standing on end and my skin prickling, read of subterranean caverns, secret doors, winding passages and concealed buttons. But this was the first time in my life that I had heard, first-hand of an underground city.

As Mr. Kinney proceeded with his story, visions of catacombed Rome sprang up before my eyes. I remembered the story of Phroso, in which perilous subterranean passages played such a blood-curdling part, and before my eyes came up memories of Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher lost in the darkness and vastness of the great Douglas cave.

Here was I in the year of our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Sixteen, in the modern, up-to-date city of Venice, Calif., seated in an upstairs business office fronting on Windward Avenue, listening to the weird tale of an underground city. And facing me sat a pleasant-faced, gray-haired man with hands folded, telling me in a cool, matter-of-fact tone of voice about hidden passageways and alleys which honeycombed all the earth upon which central Venice stands.

The speaker’s voice broke in on my cogitations. “Not a hundred people in Venice probably,” he said as he smiled and lit a cigarette, “know what you know - that huge passageways permeate all the ground upon which this building and a hundred like it stand.”

Perhaps I looked skeptical, I don’t know. At any rate, Mr. Kinney rose, took up his hat and said, “Follow me, I’ll show you through underground Venice.”

Over to the power house, near Coral canal, we walked, Mr. Kinney on the way making a number of interesting comments on the mysteries and little known facts in the history of Venice. Down into the power house basement we finally stepped, and over past the two Writing pumps used in the Venice salt water fire fighting system, to the south wall of the room.

“Open up the tunnel, Bob,” called Mr. Kinney, and a couple of minutes later a huge door, which I had not noticed before, swung open, showing a great space of darkness. “Walk right in and make yourself at home,” laughed my companion as he stepped into the passageway.

“Don’t hesitate, young man. Walk right in. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” And I, with considerable trepidation, took one step from daylight into black, silent Stygian darkness.

“Suppose we go exploring,” said my guide.

“All right,” I replied, “but I wish we had a lantern. I’m afraid I’ll crack my shins on something.”

“We don’t need a lantern,” chuckled my guide. “Look.” And straightaway a thousand shining electric lights lit up the cavern like day.

“I’ve improved over the catacombs of Rome,” laughed Mr. Kinney, “by installing a modern 20th-century lighting system. These electric bulbs,” pointing upward, “take the place of the stalactites and stalagmites which are found in ordinary caves.

“What are you looking for?” he continued with a quizzical look in his eyes. “If it’s mummies I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you. But if it’s pipes, you can see lots of them.”

Along one side of the tunnel ran a dozen or more pipes which ran westward until they rounded a distant curve. The line of electric lights which were hung from the ceiling every four or five feet followed the pipes until they, too, disappeared from sight.

“Let’s follow the light,” said Mr. Kinney, and we started walking along the cement-lined passageway. We didn’t have to stoop or sidestep. The tunnel accommodated us with ease.

“Now we’re beneath the shortline track,” said Mr. Kinney, presently. His voice sounded hollow as it reverberated down the passageway.

“And now we’re beneath the Venice hardware store,” I said a moment later. “Good morning, Mr. Devore,” I called, but Mr. Devore didn’t answer, in spite of the fact that he probably stood just five or six feet above us.

Mr. Kinney laughed when I remarked upon the safe refuge provided by the tunnel from the danger of Japanese invasion.

“All right,” said the doge, “when the Japs come, you pull out for Venice and I’ll let you make your residence in underground Venice. You can burrow up into Menotti’s grocery at night time and get food.”

Presently we came to the end of the tunnel. It branched, one branch running to the right and the other to the left. “We’re near the base of Windward pier now,” sad Mr. Kinney. “One of these branches runs up as far as Horizon Avenue and the other down toward Center Street.”

“Is it the ocean which makes that dull roar?” I asked. “No,” said Mr. Kinney, “I think it’s the traffic passing over us on Speedway.”

As we passed out of the tunnel into daylight again, Mr. Kinney explained why, eleven years ago, he had installed the subterranean passageways. “I didn’t create underground Venice merely for the sentimental purpose of amusing reporters and giving them the opportunity to exercise their imaginations,” he said. “I put them in for a purpose far more practical than it was romantic.

“The numerous pipes which you saw are supply pipes for the business section of Venice. One of those pipes carries the electric wires which keep the central portion of the city lighted. Another of those pipes carries the steam which heats the buildings, another carries the hot salt water in which beach visitors take their baths, and so on. When something goes wrong with one of those pipes, we don’t have to dig around for a week before we find the trouble, like they do in the business section of the average city. We simply walk into that tunnel which you’ve visited and within ten minutes we have the trouble located.”

“How about the other underground passageway which you mentioned?” I asked.

Mr. Kinney’s eyes twinkled for perhaps the 20th time in an hour. “You’ll have to put on a bathing suit if you wish to visit that,” he said. “It’s the big seven-foot diameter pipe which conveys the water from the ocean into the canals. And at the present time it’s full.”