The Venice Breakwater

It was a dark and stormy night. (I’ve always wanted to start one of my articles with that classic intro.) The wind was blowing and the equinoctial tides were unusually high. The heavy surf was pummeling the Southern California coastline. And it was raining buckets. Three inches in one night alone.

No, I’m not talking about this past winter, but the winter 100 years ago.

It had been a horrific winter season, with the heaviest storms raging in more than a generation. And it all reached a peak on Sunday March 12th, 1905, when King Neptune sent his ocean hammering at the beaches along the Santa Monica Bay. Just as Abbot Kinney was afraid it would. For he had feared that something like this might happen, and as a wise man, he had wanted to be protected. With the roaring tides unusually high, he eyed his new pier anxiously.

You see, his pier for his unfinished city of Venice of America was still under construction, including the Auditorium and the Pavilion, both a part of it. The Ship Café was also only partly completed. But there was no stopping the sea, as the incessant wave action ripped pilings from beneath the pier and hurled them back against it. Soon, the end of the pier crumbled into the raging ocean. The restaurant was severely damaged. Even the Pavilion on the pier’s inland end collapsed when the outer end of pilings washed away, and most of the Auditorium was swept away. Only small sections of the Pier remained standing the following morning, and the terrible force of the tempest they had just sustained weakened them even further. The entire construction site was flooded and the beach was littered with debris for miles. The place was a terrible mess. Damages were estimated to be in excess of $50,000. Rightfully, critics began calling his whole Venice project “Kinney’s Folly.”

What was so irksome was that Kinney had long been considering a breakwater to protect his properties along the ocean, and had asked the War Department in Washington for permission to build a breakwater to protect his new town. But the federal government, which regulated such offshore projects, had been slow in granting the necessary approvals. And this time, they came a day too late.

For the very next day, after issuing new orders to his work crews and arranging for immediate replacement and repair of his wrecked structures, the letter of permission arrived. Washington had granted permission, finally, for the construction of the $100,000 sea wall. The first official private breakwater in the United States.

Yes, still another first for Venice.

And so, as noted in the 2005 Venice Centennial calendar, on March 13th, “building of (the) Venice breakwater begins.” The 500-foot semi-circular breakwater was formed from 70,000 tons of granite brought by railroad from quarries in nearly 1000 railroad cars. A smaller adjunct rail line pier was erected to the south of the Kinney pier, for the sole purpose of delivering the massive boulders. Some sources say the stone came from Riverside, some say Hollywood, some believe it originated in Chatsworth.

I’ll bet that the whole beachfront at that time was a swarm of activity. 600 additional workers were hired to speed the rebuilding of Venice. Overtime and rush orders were authorized. Working around the clock, they were able to rebuild the auditorium in an amazing 28 days. The pier was repaired and completion of the other buildings was hurried. For Abbot Kinney had set July 4th, 1905, as the opening date for Venice of America. And nothing was going to stop his dream of an euphorious seaside resort from becoming a reality.

Today it’s easy to walk out to the 100-year-old rocks, due to the constant build-up of sand along the beach over the past century. And from that vantage point, looking east toward the far-off Windward Avenue, it’s not hard to imagine the old-time goings-on up and down the Venice pier. I’d say that the Ship Café was located where the bikepath now curves around Mark di Suvero's 60-foot-tall sculpture "Declaration," also known as the big "V." Or imagine the old, intriguing Aquarium, the elegant Dance Hall, even the thrilling Giant Dipper roller coaster and the spectacular Flying Circus aerial ride - all past pier attractions.

The Venice breakwater still endures today, 59 years after the amusement pier was forced to close. And Abbot Kinney’s original concern for the protection of his seaside investment maintains its unique status as America’s first private breakwater.