St. Marks Island, Burbank Park, Cosmos Point

I live on Rialto Avenue, called by some locals the best street in Venice. Although it’s only a bit over two blocks long, it strides the length of central Venice, from Abbot Kinney Boulevard on the east to Riviera Avenue at its western terminus. And it’s that property at the end of Rialto that I want to discuss this month.

This pie-shaped property, home today to the U.S. Postal Service Carrier Annex, was originally bounded by Riviera Avenue on the east, Lion Canal on the north, the Grand Canal on the south, and the Main Lagoon on the west. This island was intended to include 18 properties and an alley, known as Padua Court. The western tip was to offer Venetian Villas, according to the original plot map, but it all soon became one of the prominent locales in early Venice, known as St. Marks Island.

As we all know, Abbot Kinney was a man of wide-ranging interests, a noted linguist, a wealthy tobacco importer, botanist and member of scientific societies. He 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, he promoted the planting of thousands of eucalyptus seedlings throughout the region. And his love of all things “nature” would remain a vital force in his grandiose dream of Venice of America. Kinney’s slogan for the new city was “To see Venice is to live.”

It’s fairly easy chronicling the early history of St. Marks Island, using two Venice history books, “History of Venice of America, The Venice Canals 1850-1939” and “Abbot Kinney’s Venice-of-America.” They include many resources from the local newspapers of the day, the Venice Vanguard and the Santa Monica Outlook.  By wading through them, date by date, you get a first-hand account of what happened back then, especially regarding the horticultural evolution of St. Marks Island.

April 6, 1905 – Robert Armstrong, a landscape architect from Santa Barbara is hired by Abbot Kinney to provide decorative plantings for the new canals.

June 19, 1907 – Abbot Kinney is in communication with Luther Burbank with a view to establishing an experimental horticultural station in Venice in the near future. A liberal offer has been made to the noted plant species creator to undertake the project. St. Marks Island in the canal district has been submitted as the site, which will be known as Luther Burbank Park. It is an ideal site and could be transformed into one of the most interesting features of the canal city.

December 16, 1907 – Plans for the beautification of St. Mark’s Island are rapidly crystallizing. A tour of inspection was made by the promoters accompanied by Mr. Robinson, the well-known landscape architect. It is here that the Burbank Gardens is to be created. Every growing thing that has been developed by the wizard of horticulture is to be planted and maintained on these grounds. The idea has met with popular approval among horticulturists, and even Mr. Burbank has been greatly pleased and will assist the enterprise. Early Spring will find the plans well advanced.

February 24, 1908 – Luther Burbank has written a letter to the Venice Chamber of Commerce from Santa Rosa saying that a large consignment of choice flowers and plants have been shipped to Venice to be used on Arbor Day, March 7. They will be placed in Burbank Park, St. Marks Island, and also along the canals.

March 7, 1908 – As a horticulturist, Abbot Kinney never allowed Arbor Day to pass unnoticed and this year, the celebration escalated. Various organizations met at the Pier Auditorium for lectures and ceremonies, and everyone was treated to an address on the life of Luther Burbank, followed by a box lunch and musical accompaniment.

If you’re finding this deposition too verbose and prolix, like my wife does, skip down to the line with the stars.

April 30, 1908 – A small wooden structure at the Lagoon – the Windward traffic circle today - and Grand Canal was leased for two years to an all-female group called the Cosmos Club. The white building was originally a bunkhouse for canal workers during the building of Venice, and was moved to the point - called alternately Windward and St. Mark's in early days - around 1907. Mrs. Kinney used it for a meeting place for the Cosmos Club, the first women's club in the area. The ladies signed an agreement with Abbot Kinney to refurbish and furnish the little clubhouse.

The Cosmos Club was intended for “the advancement of its members in science, literature, and art, and also their mutual improvement by social intercourse.” The club originated in 1878 in the Washington, D.C. home of John Wesley Powell, soldier and explorer, ethnologist, Director of the Geological Survey, and consummate organizer. His vision was a center of good fellowship, a club that embraced the sciences and the arts, where members could meet socially and exchange ideas, where vitality would grow from the mixture of disciplines, and a library would provide a refuge for thought and learning. It was the birthplace of many kindred organizations, among them, the National Geographic Society. And so it became a natural club of the times in Venice, for Mrs. Kinney was at the forefront of political, scientific and social reform.

May 2, 1908 – Burbank Park is progressing. Little has been heard about the park but the garden of oddities is progressing nicely and a new consignment of rare plants and shrubs from the garden of the plant wizard is now expected daily. The first consignment, planted on Arbor Day, is doing as well as could be expected. Within a short time, Burbank Park will be one of the showpieces of the city. The Park is located at the foot of Windward Avenue on the triangular space formerly occupied by some of the tents of the Tent City. The tents have been removed from that place and the best care has been lavished on the gardens so that they are in fine shape. Several hundred of the rarest of the Burbank creations have already found a home there and it is even now a place well worth visiting by those interested in the work which has been done by Luther Burbank. Plans have been completed for a new home for Abbot Kinney, which will occupy the furthest end of the triangular space of the Luther Burbank Park on St. Marks Island.

June 6, 1908 – The Cosmos Club commenced construction (remodeling?) of a neat clubhouse on Burbank Island, costing $7,000.

1909 – On Arbor Day, Abbot Kinney, the only male member of the Cosmos Club, was honored by the members with a tree ceremony. An elm was planted, dedicated to and named after him. A Mrs. Howell, who gave the speech, said, “May this tree grow and live long to inspire all who enter this park, with a like philanthropic spirit as the one whose name this tree bears.”

Around 1910, the club house became a meeting place for a men's group called The Owls and after that, a grade school, according to Elayne Alexander of the Venice Historical Society.

January 29,1912 – The Grammar School board of Education took a one-year lease on Abbot Kinney’s small, white building at One Grand Canal, formerly occupied by the Cosmos Club. The rental was $35 a month with lease renewal privileges. But the structure was too small for a classroom and was abandoned after one year.

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March 3, 1916 – The former Cosmos Club at One Grand Canal, situated amid a bower of trees, flowers and shrubs, was enlarged and remodeled into a villa-like dwelling of eight rooms for the permanent residence of the newly remarried Mr. and Mrs. Kinney. It was ideally located between two canals and the adjacent land of Cosmos Point was planted with rare shrubbery, to make a park-like setting. It was a home befitting the Doge of Venice and his new bride.

Four years later, it was here that Abbot Kinney passed away at 6:20 a.m. on November 4, 1920. Up until three weeks before he passed, the Doge was still swimming in the ocean every morning, but had grown thinner and less strong. As a lifelong health seeker, he knew something was seriously wrong. But the cancerous tumor growing on one lung was not diagnosed until a few weeks before his demise. Dr. M.G. Gates of Santa Monica, one of the attending physicians, admitted that the town father did not have much time left. His kidneys were not functioning correctly and he had already lapsed in and out of a coma. The entire Kinney family was with him at his home on Cosmos Point, and all callers were forbidden. The end finally came three days later. Unconsciousness preceded the actual end and then the Doge just slept into death. He died as he lived, quietly.

His body lay at the Kinney home for a few hours before he was taken to a Santa Monica funeral home. Rev. C.W. Hollister officiated at a private service in the Cosmos Point house and then later at a public service in Woodlawn Cemetery. The Doge was laid to rest at the foot of a large stone that simply read, “Kinney” and that is where he remains today.

After his death, Mrs. Kinney later moved to the St. Mark Hotel when she became ill, and the house was given in 1925 by verbal agreement to Irving Tabor, a cousin of the town decorator Arthur Reese, and Abbot Kinney’s personal chauffeur. Irving had become a second son to the Doge and had even moved into the Kinney home with them at Cosmos Point. Irving was a great favorite of Winifred’s, but when it came time for him to move his family into the home, the neighbors made it plain that Blacks were not wanted in the then exclusive section of Venice. So all the Tabor brothers pooled their talents, resources, and knowledge to move the house.

First, they built graduated ramps on each side of the hump-backed bridge across Grand Canal. Then they cut the house into three sections and hauled it, with the help of brother Charles Tabor’s trucks, to the site where it stands today in the Oakwood section of town, at Sixth Street and Santa Clara. It has recently been remodeled and updated, and fortunately, the gate now blocking the driveway still allows the proud name Tabor to remain visible in the concrete.

But what became of Cosmos Point after the house was moved?

That is the question. You’d think that this property would naturally maintain its prominence, but it seems that after 1930, when the canals were filled in and oil production became the big story, the Windward Circle lapsed from the public’s memory.

There are photos from 1930 showing the entire island as just a bare lot with nothing on it. Another photo from the possible 1940s shows girls riding blocks of ice around the circle, but there’s no evidence of what has become of the old Cosmos Point in the background. Certainly not the lush verdant Burbank Park of only a few years before.

But why?

What caused this prominent parcel to fall out of favor? To become so defoliated, including the Abbot Kinney elm planted in 1909. To lose its civic status. To become just another lot in run-down Venice. What became of it through the 30s, the 40s, even into the 50s?

Popular opinion among present-day Venice old-time locals assumes that the Safeway Corporation built their model store on the entire St. Marks Island sometime during the 50s. And due to the ubiquitous auto and need for a parking lot, the entire island was denuded in favor of macadam. What a loss.

I’ve contacted the powers that be at Safeway – now Vons Corp. – to determine the actual opening, and later closing, date of the big, fancy store at 313 Grand Boulevard, but naturally, noone today can trace the history of that store. Figures, doesn’t it?

Local historian Arnold Springer claims to remember that Safeway had a store originally on West Washington near the Westminster school, and then in the 50s believes it built the store in that location. “It might have been the late 50s, it’s the style of the architecture back then. Possibly the 40s, when the city was doing all the urban renewal projects. But there was definitely a Safeway on West Washington, on the west side of the street. I remember the sign.”

A few hours of sleuthing myself at the Culver City public library turned up the actual opening date, March 25, 1959. Civic leaders cut the opening ribbon. The 17,500 square foot store featured all the latest “modern” conveniences, with parking available for all. It replaced the old Safeway at 121 Windward – now the Bank of America – which had opened in 1940.

Old-time local and fellow Rialto Avenue resident Jim Smith says the Safeway “closed sometime in the 70s. The joke was that it had ‘green meat and brown vegetables.’ Just one of the reasons that we used to love Safeway! On the other hand, it was a store a lot of people, including seniors, could walk to.”

 “I remember the Safeway back then. I remember shopping there around the time of the canal festival, 1974, whenever that was. I know it was still open then,” recalls long-time resident Marcia Stone. “But I’m not sure of when it closed. My guess is mid-summer to fall ’75, because I had to then start shopping at the Washington Square Safeway, around 1975. It was the only “supermarket” in the area.”

I remember that when I arrived in Venice in the summer of 1974, the store seemed to be already closed. The only market in the “downtown” section of Venice was Windward Farms, or whatever it was named back then. Very small scale.

Another local, Carol Fondiller, arrived in Venice in the early 60s. She also remembers shopping at the Safeway, but can’t remember when it closed either. “It was closed for a very long time with nothing there. Then the post office started using it as their parking lot.” And then there’s Steve, a 28-year employee of the postal service, who remembers that it was in 1977 that they started storing their vehicles in the parking lot. “It wasn’t until approximately 1980 that we took over the property as our carrier annex.”

Interestingly enough, I found out from Mark Libow of Elco Welding, that the Safeway property was actually bought by Michael Schwab, of the famed Hollywood drug store family, and then sold to the post office.       

So now it’s been 25 years as the carrier annex. One quarter of our fair city’s history. And the only real addition that they’ve added are the fencing featuring bougainvillaea and 21 pine trees along the surrounding sidewalks. And that scrawny planted park area – a bum hideout actually – at Cosmos Point.                         

“I funded the tree planting project through the CalTrans grant I got in 1992,” reports Jim Murez, another local. “Each project had a lead person on the project that did the community out reach for the local neighborhood. This person was called a Citizen Forester and was trained by Treepeople about how to get consensus, raise the matching funds I required per tree ($50) and how to organize the planting day. The person who was the leader on this project as I recall was Mark Ryavek.”

Ryavek, another Rialto Avenue resident, also raised additional funds for the planting of the bushes and drip watering system on the fences around the post office sorting facility.

“I removed the concrete and old Safeway Grocery store sign from the point at Windward,” says Jim. “ The tree that was planted there, a Spathodia, with yellow flowers - which is a very rare variety - was a special dedication to a young boy that had recently died and who's mother lived in Venice and was a big supporter of Treepeople.  We even had a small service for the boy.”

Touching, of course, but it seems to me that what today remains one of the largest single properties in Venice should be rightfully returned to the city as a lovely reminder of what was once a properly elegant canal-side park. Imagine a lush lawn and grounds, featuring native plants and vegetation, a re-planted and re-dedicated elm tree, a playground for the youngsters, a picnic area with tables and barbeque pits, and an information kiosk, expounding on the history of this island, of our horticultural founder and the great history of our century-old city of Venice. St. Marks Island, Burbank Park, Cosmos Point, indeed!