Walkstreet History

Recently, I was fortunate enough to be asked to give an oral presentation to the Venice Walkstreets Association on the history of their neighborhood. The presentation was titled "Venice Gateway Tract: The Early History of the Venice Walkstreets." That's the neighborhood bounded by Electric Avenue to the west, Palms Boulevard to the north, Lincoln Boulevard to the east, and approximately Venezia Avenue or Venice Boulevard to the south. And it contains the walkstreets Nowita Place, Marco Place, Amoroso Place and Crescent Place, along with Superba and Shell Avenues, and made up primarily of 620 single-family homes.

When I was originally asked to give this presentation, I didn't know a thing about this section of Venice, but its history - or maybe lack of - had always intrigued me. And it seemed that nobody else knew anything about this area either. I asked some friends, and Venice history experts, for help. They offered some clues, so I took it from there, dug in and went exploring.

Venice originally started in 1904, and Abbot Kinney, the founder of Venice-of-America, knew his plan for a modern renaissance city didn't have a chance of succeeding without the access to electric train service. One expert told me, "The development of Los Angeles was based on the expansion of the train system. That's the real story of Los Angeles."

The Venice Short Line was the train to take to get here. It began service in 1903, from downtown L.A. at 4th and Hill streets. The route was almost 15 miles to Windward Avenue, taking 38 minutes. And that's what brought the 40,000+ people to town on opening day, July 4, 1905.

Back then, everyone visiting Venice "dressed to the nines." Women in elegant silk blouses and long black skirts, and the men in business suits. Everyone wore hats. And what a place to visit! Just imagine the town smelling of cotton candy, roasting sausages, hot buttered popcorn, candied apples, lavender water, Havana cigar smoke and ocean salt breeze. The sounds of shouting vendors and hawkers on the amusement pier and along the boardwalk, popping guns in the shooting galleries, clattering roller-coaster wheels, the murmur and chatter of the crowds. One could purchase Hokey-Pokeys, two for 5 cents - a square of ambrosia wrapped in waxed paper, better known as ice cream. Quite the novelty at the time. There were dances at the Pavilion, auto races, gondola excursions, ten-cent camel rides, the thrills of the amusement pier, and Sunday afternoon band concerts. A resort city of life, light and enchantment. A visual splendor unlike anything else around.

And a chance to own a piece of this "Paradise of America," "A place of perpetual carnival," or "Joy from January to January," as it was billed, was made available to one and all. That's where we find the early history of the walkstreets, in the Venice Gateway Tract.

It all started in 1894, when John Metcalf bought the mostly marshy ranch land of this area consisting of 55 acres for $3,000. Originally, this whole area was part of the original La Ballona Rancho, owned by Jose Juan Machado. Then 11 years later, on July 18, 1905 - this land just east of and adjoining the original Venice of America was purchased by a syndicate and was platted into 384 lots and put on the market as the Venice Gateway Tract. The most intriguing and appealing aspect of it was that the electric train line ran near it. Seeing the interest in Venice property was at a peak, in just a couple of days 175 lots were sold for more than $200,000, and the promoters expected to close it all out within a week for more than $400,000. A year prior, this property would not have brought $40,000.

But who was this "syndicate" that purchased Metcalf's ranch? This is what intrigued me. I found out that one of the major players around Venice - or actually Ocean Park, as the town was called back then - was Dana Burks. And here's where the story opens up.

Dana Burks was born in 1871 in Adairville, KY. Around 1880 his parents moved to Los Angeles, when he was 8 or 9 years old. Little is known of his early history in Los Angeles until 1897, when Burks was elected as secretary of the joint committee of the city council on renaming Los Angeles streets. In 1903, they published an official "Map of the City of Los Angeles," compiled from official surveys under the supervision of Dana H. Burks, Secretary, "Street Naming Commission" and showing all the changes - 326 in number - made by the Commission and approved by the City Council. He was making a name for himself among the city officials. And a name for himself business-wise as well.

In 1902, it was reported that Dana Burks was elected vice-president of the Ocean Park Country Club, which had opened on August 2nd. This was located between Club House and Westminster Avenues, just east of Trolleyway - now Pacific Avenue - being a part of Abbot Kinney's development of South Ocean Park. The club that opening day featured the first polo match of the season, a tennis tournament and tea in the afternoon, followed by a large dancing party to the accompaniment of an orchestra and cards, and possibly ping-pong, in the evening.

In October of 1902, it was recorded that Burks purchased a lot on the Ocean Front for $1800. I believe this was located at Dudley Avenue. Possibly one of the first residential lots in Venice. It showed that Burks was definitely a part of the upcoming Venice movement.

Then, on February 23, 1904, the first meeting of the Ocean Park Board of City Trustees was held, during which Dana Burks was nominated as president of the Council and Mayor of Ocean Park. It was referred to Mr. Burks' activity as organizer of the Ocean Park Country Club, local resident and president of the Chamber of Commerce, and his work in many ways for the upbuilding of the town. The vote was unanimous, and was considered a worthy compliment in recognition of his services to further the status of Ocean Park.

So here it was. Dana Burks was the first mayor of Ocean Park - which would soon become Venice.

And he seemed to take his responsibilities forthright. By July 17, 1905, less than 2 weeks after Venice officially opened, it was reported that he announced plans to make Ocean Park into a yachting center. And on July 15, 1906, the South Coast Yacht Club had accepted the invitation of the Ocean Park Country Club to hold its annual regatta at Venice. The program would include one race on Saturday for the Country Club perpetual cup, and three events and the cruise on Sunday evening, from the Venice breakwater to San Pedro for the cruising cup. That race started at 3:30, in order that the finish would be made before dark. On Saturday evening, the members of the Yacht Club were tendered a banquet by the Country Club, and were entertained during the evening at a theater party at the Auditorium. This was in lieu of the usual yacht ball, and was a happy social feature.

Dana was also something of a racing fan, it seemed. In 1906, he purchased at a forced sale the famous old war-horse of automobiling, "999," the car that made Barney Oldfield famous and which in its day caused a spectacular number of sensations. This car was so fast, in fact, that it was retired from track racing. On September 11 of that year, the Mayor of Venice, with a party of experts in the American automobile trade, left Venice at daybreak to test the surface of the Rosamond dry lake in the Mojave Desert, believing that a desert dry lake would beat out the ocean beach courses, so prominent in that time, and see if one would really do for an automobile race course. Once on the glassy, smooth cement-like surface of the lake, the car ran like a cannon ball, with almost no effort. At the highest speed there was no skidding nor slipping, nor even a jar. It was found to be perfect - an automobile paradise.

And as a professional businessman, Burks was involved in all things Southern California had to offer. On June 3, 1907 he visited Pasadena, saying that he has offered to take the big five-ton telescopic lens up to the observatory on Mt. Wilson free of charge in one of his traction engines that he was manufacturing in Los Angeles. He was of the opinion that the auto truck now being experimented with on the Mt. Wilson trail would not be able to make it with a five-ton burden.

But back to Venice and the Gateway Tract. "The Duke of Ocean Park," as he was sometimes referred to, opened his "Venice Annex" for sale in July, 1905. The whole tract, which was one of the sensations of the seaside boom back then, was disposed of in just two days. A Mrs. E.J. Slauson, it was reported on December 17, 1907, bought six lots in various parts of the tract at the time. Shown to her by Burks personally, he told her that he had reserved five of the choicest lots for himself, intending to build one of the finest residences in the country. He then changed his mind, and sold the site to a Japanese curio dealer, and then afterward took it back. It was here that the city of Ocean Park eventually built the City Hall building. "A building most unsightly in character," she advised.

When the tract was first sold to her, Burks and others represented to her - falsely, she claimed - that their map had been regularly platted and filed for record. She said the company and Burks knew perfectly well at the time that it had not been. Afterward, she claimed, the tract was replatted and resurveyed, and in a new form accepted by Ocean Park. In the process, however, part of her best lots were sliced off. Some of the streets of the first tract had disappeared altogether, and had become parks.

And this is where, I believe, the unique character of the whole walk-street community came into play. These little parks would become the vest-pocket, mid-block traffic circles, for pedestrians no less, so uncommon throughout the rest of Venice, or Los Angeles for that matter, but uniquely held precious to those who know and love them among the walk streets today.

These little traffic circles, on every block of Marco, Nowita and Amoroso, along with the traffic circle on Shell Avenue, just drew me in, wanting me to find out who designed these parambulatories. I just had to find the source. And so off to City Hall I went, hooking up with Greg Fischer, who knows everything about Los Angeles' history. After only a few minutes, he produced the original tract map - or at least a copy of it - for me to peruse. And it held many answers to the mysteries of this astounding section of Venice.

First off, due to the Venice Short Line tracks curving north from Center Street - today's Venice Boulevard - along what's Electric Avenue, it created a unique instance of breaking the traditional grid effect in the layout of the streets and walkways. Thus we get Crescent Place and the aforementioned Shell Avenue roundabout, which I would say is the first traffic circle in Venice, if not all of L.A. And in keeping with the cozy atmosphere created originally by the walkstreets along the North Beach section of Venice, these were incorporated into the neighborhood design as well. Remember, this was before the advent of the automobile, which made meandering around on foot a much more pleasant, worthwhile and necessary experience. Plus, the whole area was served by the Short Line trains, with 3 stops accorded access to this area: Fredericks Station, at nowaday's Lincoln Boulevard, Couer d'Alene stop, and the stop at Tokio.

And without the automobile, the fronts of the properties became accessible via the sidewalks, making for a true neighborhood feeling. So desired 100+ years ago, as they are today.

According to a closer look at the map, it shows that Palms Avenue back then was called Naples Avenue, and Lincoln Boulevard was called the Compton & Santa Monica Road. It was surveyed by Philip Schuler, Civil Engineer in August 1905. So I guess Mrs. Slauson's claim of replatting and resurveying were true. And the owners, under the name of The Union Trust Company, with J.H. Braly as president, included Dana Burks, himself a reputable banker at that time. The trust's reason for buying the land today remains unclear. It may have just been speculation. It was recorded on September 12, 1905, however, so things were off and officially running.

It's interesting to note that John Hyde Braly, president of the trust company, was a successful banker, also involved in real estate in Los Angeles as well as other sections of California, notably San Diego and the Santa Clara Valley. Braly was a recognized and respected Pasadena name. At that time, a large number of these lots, in what was then referred to as the Garden Section, were purchased by the hoi-polloi from Los Angeles and Pasadena. Seeing that Venice was located sea-side, these residences were in high demand, mainly used as summer or weekend getaways. Taking the Red Car line to the beach to get away from the sweltering heat found inland was just the ticket. Back then, some of the houses featured front sleeping porches, there was hardly any closet space designed into the homes, and the idea of a garage or parking space was virtually non-existent. Just summer getaways.

In the Spring of 1907, when the citizens of Venice passed a bond issue to finance construction of a City Hall, Abbot Kinney offered several land parcels that would have been centrally located in the community. Instead, the Trustees accepted a ten-acre site offered by David Evans, who was allied with Mayor Burks. The land was in Venice's outback, so far from everything that it would be later dubbed the 'Tokio Palace' because citizens perceived it about as far away as its namesake in the Orient. Thus, this is how the Short Line stop was named. Despite an unofficial straw vote by the neighborhood property owners that favored an alternate site, the Trustees paid Evans $5000 for the property and awarded the $10,798 building contract to a contractor that May.

Then on March 31, 1909, published reports stated that in anticipation that the city might not be content to utilize the present City Hall as such, forever, City Attorney Thomas Hanna suggested that the city bring an action to condemn the reversionary interest held in the site by David Evans, Dana Burks and the heirs of the Metcalf estate. The relocation of the City Hall at some point would be more convenient and nearer the business center of the city, which had been discussed upon numerous occasions. It was argued that the present location of the public building - City Hall at Tokio - works a hardship and inconvenience upon all who have business to transact with any of the officers of the city.

In 1911, Venice finally seceded from Ocean Park, becoming its own city, and the City Hall became Venice's own City Hall. That is, until 1925 when the voters decided to consolidate with Los Angeles. And the City Hall remained as a sub-station for the city, until it was taken over by Beyond Baroque in 1979. Luckily, it was named as a Los Angeles Historic Monument in 2003, so we'll have this old historic building around for a long time.

There are also some unique properties within this section of Venice, now known as the Milwood District - why, I don't know either, seeing that Milwood Avenue isn't a part of it - but it's great to see owners taking pride in the histories of their homes. If you walk along Crescent Place, two residences proudly display the heritage of their properties on brass plaques. At 1621 Crescent Place, it states "Crescent Cottage, Floyd J. Roberts Residence, 1922." And at 1617 Crescent Place, the plaque reads "Wagner House, 1913, James R.H. Wagner, Manager - Venice-of-America." It's always interesting to find out how these residents tracked down this knowledge.

Word of mouth, or oral histories, is one way of finding out about old bits of information, although it can sometimes be a bit questionable. A friend of mine who lived in the duplex at 708-710 Nowita Place, said "I was told by the dead owners who leased to me (they owned it for 50 some odd years) that my old house - built in 1912 - and the one right across the walk was Barnum and Bailey's. They had the houses right across from each other. He was not sure whose was whose, but that's what he told me. He was in his late seventies when he died but was lucid and clear until his sudden death. If you want to talk to the daughter, you could probably talk to her, but she is as crazy as a loon." And so too, is this information, seeing that P.T. Barnum died in 1891, and James A. Bailey died in the spring of 1906. And what would they be doing in Venice anyway?

Another grand property in the Venice Gateway Tract is currently owned by Jennifer and Bob Hughes. You probably know the place at 838 Superba. It was built in 1909, one of the earlier homes in eastern Venice. It stills sits on its original 3 lots, .8 acres in all, one of the only homes in Venice that has that distinction. It's lots 6-8 in block 11 on the original tract map. Bob thinks there were just 4 owners before they took over the house in 1988. Around the property, he said they could see depressions in the soil where there had at one time been garden structures - a shed or what not. There was never a "porte cocher" entrance, although the east side features an interesting pseudo-drive-up embellishment.

In the 1960's, the house was a commune and a center for the Peace and Freedom Party. After repeated calls, the Venice police simply referred to it as, "The House on Superba". A hang glider was built in the attic by a former tenant and lowered to earth by a block and tackle. The Hughes bought the house from Mark and Barbara Peterson, a Rand Corporation lawyer and photographer, respectively. They had lived there for the prior 15 years.

Bob says there have always been many rumors about the residence, that it was possibly the home of Abbot Kinney's sister, hauntings, etc., but that nothing can be confirmed.

And Bob adds one further note: the two-story house on the south side of the 700 block of Superba, now being remodeled by its owner Richard, is the oldest house on the street. It was a coach house that was built in the 1890's and moved here! Unfortunately, little is left of it after the current makeover.

As a matter of fact, I'd say this neighborhood has to be one of the most unusual and interesting around. Today it features the old City Hall and the old jail, plus the cultural institutions Beyond Baroque and SPARC now at those locations, the theater district along Venice Boulevard, Palms Court Apartments, at 733-739 Palms Boulevard, site of the Jazz at Palms Court and Venice Music Festival every September, and the Code Pink houses, bases for the group of women for peace which emerged in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and whose name is a spoof on the Department of Homeland Security's color-coded threat level system, which are located at 2010 Linden Avenue and 757 Palms Boulevard. To those who attended the Venice Garden Tour this past spring, many were unaware that this section of Venice even existed. How surprised and amazed they were at this unique community hidden within today's modern Venice.

But what I found most timely was that just a few days after my lecture, the Los Angeles Times ran an article about the walkstreets, calling them a "neighborhood of narrow pathways, elaborate gardens and eclectic home designs." Close to the beach, "the true in-crowd resides a few blocks from that sandy scene in adorable, expensive, exclusive and small turn-of-the-20th-century cottages in the popular walkstreets section of town. Many of the original properties - small bungalows clustered together - have maintained their character, despite gentrification of the neighborhood. The neighborhood today attracts a galaxy of stars - Julia Roberts is a walkstreet notable - and the hip."

So there you have it, from an early outback not worth much to the hipness of Hollywood, with a whole lot of walking in between. Got to love the walkstreets!