The History Of Venice, Florida
Venice was first settled in the 1870s by Robert Rickford Roberts who established a 121 acre homestead on the south end of the bay which was named for him. In 1882, he sold some of his property to Frank Higel who established a citrus operation and whose descendants dominated the Venice area until the mid-1910s.
Originally called “Horse and Chaise” because of a carriage-like tree formation that marked the spot for fisherman, the city acquired its more elegant name in 1888. That was the year the city acquired its first post office “Venice” – a name suggested by Frank Higel and adopted by the city as its own, after the canal city in Italy.
Mrs. Bertha Palmer, with a portion of the magnificent fortune inherited from her late husband and owner of Chicago’s famed Palmer House Hotel, purchased 140,000 acres of wild Florida frontier land. She built The Oaks, an elegant winter residence in nearby Osprey which attracted notice in northern newspapers of the time. Mrs. Palmer successfully lobbied to have the railroad line extended to Venice in 1911. The importance of this event can not be overstated as it placed Venice on the path of progress and new development.
Just five years later, noted New York physician, Dr. Fred Albee came to Venice with a dream. He wanted to build a “model city,” and commissioned John Nolan to create what may have been Florida’s first master planned community. Albee envisioned agriculture, industry, commerce, housing and recreation harmoniously coexisting. During the real estate boom of the 1920s and thanks to a cash infusion by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE) of Cleveland, Ohio, the plans began to turn into reality. Homes and businesses featuring graceful Italian architecture were constructed, and the town became home for many of the retired members of the wealthy union. By June 1926, the three-story Venice Hotel (now Park Place) was completed by the BLE and the $1 million per month development of a model city had begun. The New York architectural firm of Walker and Gillette was hired to ensure that all construction would conform to the “northern Italian” theme designed to give the community its unique character. By 1927, the City of Venice was incorporated.
But hard times were just around the corner. The Great Depression left Venice and most other Florida cities in desolation. Venice was a virtual ghost town with more than 200 commercial and residential structures, 141 apartments, 10.5 miles of paved streets, 15 miles of sidewalks, seven miles of underground storm drains, 13 miles of water pipes and a water treatment plant. The real estate operations of the BLE went into receivership and most of the unsold land reverted to Albee and other creditors.
Venice began its economic recovery in 1932 when the Kentucky Military Institute (KMI) rented the Venice Hotel (now Park Place) and the San Marco Hotel (now Venice Centre Mall) as winter quarters for its cadets.
In 1933, Dr. Albee purchased the Park View Hotel (later demolished for a post office) and established the Florida Medical Center as a successful teaching hospital. In 1942, the U.S. government began construction of the Venice Army Air Base on property south of the city. The base trained fighter pilots throughout World War II and was a major influence on the development of the city.
In the 1960s The Corps of Engineers initiated work on the Intracoastal Waterway as a way of moving freight through the state. The happy result was the increase in pleasure boating in Venice and across Florida.
The 1960s also saw the arrival of the famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In 1968 the circus founded the Clown College in Venice, renowned as one of the most prestigious training schools in the world for professional clowns. Clown College left the area in 1994. At press time negotiations were underway to bring the Florida Military Aviation Museum on the property that housed the circus.
Venice has evolved into a charming and lively town, an outstanding example of a planned Florida community with a wealth of “northern Italian” style structures populated by a warm and caring population.