Pillars of a Beach Community
Ray Bradbury Helps Save Venice's Famous Colonnade
By Julie Haire | Online Only | Nov. 2, 2009
Charming seaside towns dot the California coast, each with its own personality. But perhaps none is as boisterous as Venice.
With a rich, almost improbable, history, Venice is famous for its beach, boardwalk, musclemen, and counter culture. And though now it's a very desirable place to live, with houses selling for upwards of $800,000, there are parts of the district that clearly show their age—particularly its signature colonnade, which is more than 100 years old and in a state of disrepair.
The colonnade, made up of dozens of Corinthian columns supporting Venetian-style arcade buildings on Windward, Pacific, and Market avenues, serves as the gateway to the city and is one of Venice's most recognizable landmarks. Movie buffs recognize the colonnade from the opening scene of Orson Welles' 1958 film "Touch of Evil."
Over the years, many of the columns have been destroyed by both the city and private property owners, but preservation efforts have kept a few dozen intact (if not lovingly maintained). The Venice Historical Society, a small, fiercely dedicated group of local volunteers, aimed to change that.
Led by President Jill Prestup, the society launched a plan in 2006 to restore the columns to their original state. But it wasn't until best-selling author Ray Bradbury came on board last summer that the project took off.
Bradbury, 89, has long championed the city, having lived and written there for a decade. Last summer Prestup met with Bradbury to discuss donating merchandise for the society's fundraiser when Bradbury said he wanted to get involved in the colonnade restoration. "So the wheels started turning, and I said, 'Can we use your name?'" Prestup remembers. And so it was born: The Ray Bradbury Adopt-a-Colonnade Restoration Project.
History at the Beach
For a relaxed little beach community with a population around 35,000, Venice has an eclectic, outsized personality. Tobacco millionaire and developer Abbot Kinney created Venice-of-America in 1905 as a seaside resort to rival Coney Island, packing it with attractions like a pier with a bandstand, aquarium, miniature railroad, camel rides, and aerial stuntmen.
Drawing on his love of European culture, Kinney modeled the city after Venice, Italy, installing 16 miles of canals, complete with gondolas and grand Italianate buildings lining the main streets. (Although crews filled in most of the canals in 1929, six remain navigable today in what is now a very coveted neighborhood.)
When Kinney died in 1920, the town lost its benefactor and booster, and in 1925, Venice was annexed to the City of Los Angeles. Since Los Angeles was unwilling to maintain Kinney's amusement-park visions, the town's fortunes rose and fell like the tide. Oil was discovered offshore in the 1930s, but then came the Depression and World War II. The 1960s brought the beatniks, hippies and a bohemian ethos—which remains strong today, despite sweeping gentrification. The 1970s saw the creation of the city's beachfront boardwalk, now a dizzying array of the bizarre and beguiling—vendors, street performers, exhibitionists, transients, and the people who come to watch it all unfold. Today, the bicycle and pedestrian pathway is the second most popular tourist attraction in Southern California, after Disneyland.
Prestup describes the power of Venice in its residents' hearts and minds as a force that remains even after they move away. "Once you really establish yourself and you become a Venetian, you're very protective. And everybody who lives here really is proud of it," she says. Bradbury is still enchanted with the city, Prestup adds. "He's one of those Venetians who never lost the love for it, and he wants to give back."
Bradbury recalls that he was inspired by Venice's atmospheric setting, with "the ocean and the fog coming in every night," and wrote his short story, "The Fog Horn," while living there.
"Every noon for several years I swam in the ocean," he says. "And then when I came out, I was refreshed and went and wrote in my garage-office."
Buy a Column for Venice
The Venice Historical Society has targeted 27 columns in need of restoration, starting with the ones on Windward Avenue. For $2,500, donors receive a dedication plaque on the column of their choice.
Reta Moser, who moved to Venice in 1959, bought the first column in honor of her younger brother. Now a recovering drug addict, he chose the column by the old entrance to the St. Mark's Hotel, where he used to live. "Those columns are what make Venice," Moser says. "No other place has columns like that. The canals are gone, most of them, but the columns—they represent Venice."
Aside from a $10,000 Community Beautification Grant from the City of Los Angeles, the colonnade project is funded entirely by private citizens—and volunteers at that. With some ingenuity and a touch of celebrity, they are refurbishing a landmark on their own.
Now that the city and city council are supporting the project, Prestup is hopeful that the first column, sponsored the Venice Historical Society, could get a makeover by year's end, but it will take time to refurbish the entire colonnade. After all, Venice wasn't built in a day.
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.