The Very First House in Venice

I was bicycling along the beach front the other night, one of my favorite summertime things to do. It was one of those great evenings with this cooling mist off the ocean lending a 40s-ish noir feeling to the whole scenery. And as I rode along, I was conjuring up the visions of all the old, past Venetian architecture that is there no more.

Going north past Rose Ave, where the old King George Hotel once housed evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson just before her prematurely reported aquatic demise, I then found the old Islamic-inspired domed Ocean Park Bathhouse suddenly haunting my vision. There today we find the present Adda & Paul Safron Senior Center. Sadly, I know I wished some sort of architectural acknowledgement to the great building that originally sat on that spot had been incorporated into its design, rather than the bland architecture that now sits on that historic parcel.

And then going around the bikepath bend after entering Ocean Park, my mind raced back in time to the old P.O.P. amusement complex, and all the modernistic forms that had erupted oceanside in the futuristic 60s. And then to the old wrecked P.O.P., and the grey sullen winter sunsets of its jagged profile.

The speckles from the fog sprayed my vision and I was taken back to even further times. I tried to imagine the early days of Venice, before this fair city even opened. To just after the turn of the century into the roaring 1900s. To this barren patch of sand dunes, seashore, but mostly swampland. And then to those hearty individuals that first settled in this then-still-remote area of Southern California. Santa Monica was stretching southward through Abbot Kinney’s first land development company, and just because he won the toss of the coin, didn’t mean that that old Ocean Park development just went away. Their development had gone south as far as Sunset Ave, and that meant early homes were being built. And people arriving and living here.

I go back to all the early photos that have become almost engrained into my remembrance. Of those pioneering postcards that showed the then commonplace goings-on of a raw, western-style reenactment of the true old-world sophisticated Venetian lifestyle. I wonder at the colors of the early Venice-of-America beyond the garland-ed (what kind of a word is that?) patriotic colors that festooned the old Windward Ave centro-de-ciudad. I feel as if I missed some glorious old-time mannerisms that I’ve always wanted to return to. To that very American age when all things looked upward in optimism.

Me being me, it immediately led to the question of what might have been the first house in Venice. Ah-ha!

Early candidates easily came to mind. I first thought of my kitty-corner neighbors Bonnie & Will McWhinney and their definite historical home found in many early Venice photos. My own recollections remembered that the house was originally built by the Abbot Kinney Company as a ‘spec house.’ To show all those train-traveling tourists that this could be your new dream. This is the new life available here in Venice. Invest now.

When our family moved in across from this status home, we got to meet the gracious and elegant old couple that more than enhabits these precious premises. I asked Will how old he thought his house was, kinda knowing the answer already. What I got back was an explanation of how you must already know that all the original records for Venice were lost in the great fire at City Hall of 1915. No, I didn’t, sheepishly. And then I was told about how his present office space was originally the boathouse of the residence along Cabrillo Canal. Wow. What a grand old house with such history. I still find the original entryway with the left-to-right spiraling craftsman staircase a wonder.

I’ve always been interested - I guess hobby-wise - in finding all the old photos I can that show our property in our neighborhood. I had come across an on-line image of exactly the right panoramic that featured our corner and the gondola-ed (there we go again!) canal with Bonnie & Will’s house in it’s first incarnation. Pre-boathouse. Dated 1908. Which put the kibosh on Bonnie’s theory of their house, now at 589 Grand Ave, being built in 1910.

It is just a house, not a home. So sings David Byrne, but I beg to differ. A home is when you can put the date on the original toilets, like Will told me he had. 1904. I forgot to ask him the manufacturer. But at least it was built by 1906, probably 1905, as I’d hoped it would.

Wait. Next came to mind the official Venice of America House. The much-lauded domicile at 1223 Cabrillo, the one with another Islamic-inspired dome. Paint it gold, guys! How cool would that be!!

How did this property come to be, amongst all the one-story cottages that lined the original canal? It’s visible in a bunch of postcards showing the early Lion Canal (Windward Ave) looking eastward, and in one even earlier photo showing the canals being dredged, the house appears in the background, putting it in the 1904-era. Supposedly, it was also built by the Kinney Company as the home for the contractor in charge of dredging and digging the canals, so that he could use the second-story balcony to oversee the project. But the present owner claims it might have been just a conjecture from the previous owner, one Prudie Pressman, a true hippie-of-Venice if there ever was one.

By the end of her reign there, almost every interior surface of her pad was painted a different fluorescent color, leading to many acid inspired and mind-bending experiences. And this was the state of disrepair the house was in when Stephen & Antonio came to acquire and conquer this valued Venice relic, circa 1982. And ultimately turn it into a house now found on the National Register of Historic Places. Various literature commemorating this event date the building being erected in 1903-04 (Venice Historical Society); as a Victorian House, built by Abbot Kinney for a friend 1904 (Venice U.S.A., 1980); as “Venice’s oldest house” (Jeff Stanton’s ‘Coney Island of the Pacific’); and surprisingly 1906, from the actual application for registry form itself, altho the final placque on the house reads 1905. So? Go figure the date yourself. I only present the evidence.

As the original building permit for the house does not exist, the name of the architect is also unknown. Norman Marsh & Clarence Russell, the original and only architects initially associated with Abbot Kinney to design the principal buildings of all Venice, a cool commission if there ever was one, may have thusly designed this house. It made sense to me.

I had by now come to one of those great summer beach house parties, with the music acting as a background drone to the other drone of the party chatter, punctuated randomly by some young girl’s glorious scream. I stopped and watched for a while, until things started to get pixalated. The mist was increasing.

I took off my glasses and the blurriness continued, until before my eyes was just a vision of blank beach, no houses, a few small dunes, a starry, quiet night. Alone on the horizon was a distant light, from the porch lamp of an early home, alone and quiet in this heavenly sea-side zone. Oh yeah, that house. The one I’d heard about from Jan Brilliot.

Way out at 2412 Oakwood Ave, south of present-day Venice Blvd, is where this beach duplex lit up the barren skies back in 1904. It’s still believed that Gilah Yelin Hirsch’s present home was the first to be built in the original “Venice of America.” Two citrus ranchers, with farms in what is now downtown L.A., built their beach duplex on a barren parcel with an unobstructed ocean view. How cool to take time off from your ranch and ride a couple days by horse to your beach shack and hang out with nothing around you.

But by 1974 when Gilah bought the condemned, in “horrible, horrible shape” property, she saw potential and has spent over 30 years restoring it. She started by converting the duplex into a single family residence with rooms opening onto each other in a spiral pattern, adding nine skylights, and then building an adjacent 2-story studio, maintaining the original ‘Arts & Crafts’ style of the property. The present house features a laid-back ambiance, yet it’s hard to imagine viewing the ocean with the encroaching neighborhood buildings right there. And, the long distance to the shore.

Further down the bikepath I roamed, imagining all the original buildings in the Windward district: the Plunge, the Auditorium, Menotti’s Buffet, the Neptune Theatre, the old St. Mark’s Hotel, the Bridge of Sighs. The ultimate coolness of the arched walkways when they were outlined in neon in 1937, the once-great cornices embellishing the tops of the buildings. The total complete grandeur of it all. Before its demise.

And then I come across the new construction on the avenue. I’d always damned the First Federal Savings people for their originally obtrusive concrete 60s bombshell of a bank building, where Robert Graham’s house, the white wonder that’s becoming overgrown, now sits in grand humblement to his next-door gargantuan under construction. What happened to the coolness of the arches? Why go so massive? And why can’t the guy across the street get it right? The arches are too small and the pointy-top window seems pathetic. Sorry, close but no cigar. Nice try, though.

I thought I’d take a few laps around the deserted traffic circle, imagining the initial grandstand facing the rippling grand lagoon, where the post office now stands. And then there came the Race Thru The Clouds rollercoaster, the lush foliage of Cosmos Point on St. Mark’s Island, the friendly Antler Hotel, the old bathhouse, now replicated along the boardwalk at 909 Ocean Front Walk. Hurray! Someone finally appreciates the local architectural lineage. The history of this grand “Playground of the Pacific” will therefore never die, no matter what. Yet I feel we need to preserve it more and more.

I knew Elayne Alexander could weigh in on this oldest home question, and her response didn’t surprise me. “It’s the Nike Blu House, at 523 OFW. You know, that former residence that’s been clothing stores, movie locations, radio shack (anybody remember the KIIS-FM summer house and the blow-out emceed by Jerry Springer?), art gallery, and rentable party house recently. It was built in 1901. I know, I’ve tracked down the tax records.”

But of course, it all made sense. I’d taken one of her history walks along the boardwalk, and after hearing this fact, thought that it was kind of unceremonius that noone really knows about this incredible house and its amazing longevity. Ever since Abbot Kinney had purchased the Ocean Park tract in 1891, there were those who decided to live at the beach, and why not take the southwest-most (another of those words?) property and make it your own. And fortunately, it’s still intact. I always thought it would have been a great location to house a Venice 100th Anniversary museum, and still think so. Think of all the boardwalk tourists, and the level of historical enlightenment achievable. All we need is money, right?

Memory is a wild, vapid factor. Sometimes it’s sharp, sometimes it fades away like the night fog. I’d almost forgotten about Nettie Bouck, the girl whose face graces the column capitols around town. And how I’d already told her story. To quote from it: “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 (yikes!) with his wife, Cora. Miss Nettie Robinson, daughter of the sheriff of Stockton, was visiting at the time, 1904. 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.”

Jeez Louise… I guess I’d found it, and I didn’t even know I’d had it all along. 1897, living on the beach about where today you’ll find Frank Gehry’s design for an updated lifeguard tower known as the Norton House. It must have been one great time and one great house, unfortunately, now gone. But still probably one of the first.

Old time housing still flooded my brain as I pedaled homeward. What about the house right next door to the Blu House, mentioned before, at Sunset Ave and OFW? It looked old and so I tracked down its date of origin on Give them the address, they’ll tell you its value, the history of the residence, and provide a bird’s-eye-view. Kinda cool, but I’m doubting their accuracy on the year the homes were built. It says that 9 Sunset was built in 1903. OK, could be, and so could 415 Rialto, purported ex-residence of Janis Joplin and viewable way in the background in old photos, in 1905. But then there’s 544 Rialto, another old 2-story bungalow styled house that’s been cared for immaculately. Zillow says it was built in 1910, but that goes against the 1908 photo showing it and the McWhinney’s residence, along with my present property which back then only sported 6-7 planted palm trees, knee-high, and a spectacular 135’ access along the Cabrillo Canal. Our house didn’t show up until 1922, if you believe Zillow.

I think I was thoroughly soaked by the time I got home, but I can’t remember. Where was I, here in the present or floating around in the past? Wouldn’t it be cool to somehow magically bring back the old, lost canals, if just for a fortnight, and casually glide along the waterways, being gondola-ed (there, again) under the twinkling lights and multi-colored electric globes that rippled their reflections along the languid surface. To go back to those tin-lizzie times and wear starched shirt collars, lace-up high-cut leather shoes to the beach, and yet try to smuggle out the one-piece wool swimsuit with the big V in the circle on the front which you’ve rented for the day. A great souvenir that will last for generations.

Where are they now?