In the 1870s, Richard Roberts established a homestead near Roberts Bay and the beach. He planted an orange grove and a few other crops. In 1884, he sold a portion of his holdings to Frank Higel. Higel established a citrus operation involving the production of several lines of canned citrus items, such as jams, pickled orange peel, lemon juice and orange wine. For the next 30 years, the Higel family members were boat builders, fishermen, grove caretakers and contractors. The first postmaster was Darwin Curry. The Curry and Higel families chose the name Venice for their community post office, located south of Shakett Creek on what is now Portia Street in Nokomis.
In 1911, the railroad was completed to Venice, making way for the development of the area. Bertha Honore Palmer (Mrs. Potter Palmer), a Chicago businesswoman, purchased 60,000 acres. The Sarasota-Venice Company, Palmer’s land development operation, platted a small area south of Robert’s Bay as the town of Venice and offered lots for sale.
The rail lines were extended to the newly platted area and the new stop was called Venice Train Station. Later, the Venice Post Office was moved for the convenience of being closer to the Venice Train Station, creating the need for a new post office to be established near the former location and named Nokomis Post Office.
The settlement of Venice occurred slowly and Venice remained a small fishing resort and farming community through the first part of the 1920s. During the 1920s, Florida land speculation and was very intense. Stories of fast fortunes and quick land sales encouraged many owners to develop their land to profit from the boom.
In 1925, Dr. Fred H. Albee, a well-known orthopedic surgeon, purchased 2,916 acres of land from the Venice-Sarasota Company. Earlier, he developed Nokomis and built its first luxury hotel, the Pollyanna Inn. Albee retained John Nolen, a world-renowned city planner, to design a city on his land. This city would be called Venice.
Albee did not have a chance to implement his plan before he was approached with a proposal from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers to purchase his land on Oct. 6, 1925. This purchase was motivated by a desire by the BLE to increase the union’s assets and holdings.
The BLE Realty Corporation was organized to develop the area and the Venice Company created to market the property. A city was to be built on land along the Gulf of Mexico. Five-acre plots farther inland were planned for agriculture. The company retained Nolen to complete a plan for a city on the gulf in 1926. This plan differed somewhat from the plan he had completed for Albee. The BLE Realty Company selected George A. Fuller as the contractor; the New York architectural firm of Walker and Gillette, as supervising architects; and Prentiss French as landscape architect.
A city is born. On June 10, 1926, the first street in Venice opened. Nassau Street ran from the terminus of Tamiami Trail, past the Hotel Venice, through Venezia Park, and again into the Trail. By mid-June, the first phase was complete with 6 miles of graded streets and a mile of 7-foot-wide sidewalks and gutters. Venice Avenue was paved. Crews worked around the clock to build a road east of town to the area where small acreage farms were for sale. The key feature of the Venice plan designated Venice Avenue as a 200-foot boulevard with a 100-foot parkway in the center terminating in a plaza on the beach. It was the gateway to Venice Beach.
Hotel Venice (now known as Park Place on Nassau Street) opened on June 21, 1926. It was described as a structure with “large windows, ventilating doors and ceiling fans.” The hotel reportedly had its own ice machines, laundry, bake shop and barber. There were 100 rooms with private baths and a fire sprinkler system. The large dining room had a beamed cypress ceiling, terrazzo floors, and a diagonally checked wall in antique Verde and white. The lobby had a cypress beamed and plaster ceiling.
Residential construction started in July 1926, with the construction of three large residences in the Gulf View section (subdivision). These large houses, located on Venice Avenue, were the most expensive to be built in the town. At the same time, it was announced five moderately priced homes would be built in the Edgewood section (subdivision). They were designed by M.M. Gleichman of Tampa. A few days later, the BLE announced 30 homes would be constructed in Edgewood with a combined value of $135,000.
In October 1926, plans to build the Hotel San Marco (now known as Venice Centre Mall on Tampa Avenue) were announced. The three-story, 92-room hotel, designed by noted Tampa architect, Franklin O. Adams, had concrete block walls and steel columns with a stucco exterior.
Venice is unique. The New York architectural firm of Walker and Gillette supervised and approved all design work prior to construction. Design review requirements set forth in all deeds were creating a community with character. Buildings had to be constructed in the Northern Italian Renaissance architectural style. The Venice standards included the use of sloping roofs with colored tile and smooth stucco. Awning colors were regulated. In many cases, they were the only color on the houses, which were generally painted white or light tones. Window and door placements were also regulated. The setting of the building was also reviewed including setback, orientation and relationship to neighboring buildings.
In December 1926, Venice held its first town council meeting and formed the police and fire departments. Gov. John Martin appointed Edward L. Worthington as the first mayor of Venice. In January 1927, the Edgewood property owners petitioned to be annexed into the town’s corporate limits. On May 9, 1927, the state legislature changed the designation of Venice from “town” to “city” by amending the enabling legislation and the Venice Charter.
As the 1920s decade came to a close, so did the Florida land boom. In the early 1930s, the situation was bleak. City employees went unpaid and the electric street lights were turned off because the bills could not be paid. Eventually the BLE real estate operations went into receivership and BLE holdings were liquidated through Miakka Estates Inc. Most of the unsold land eventually reverted to Albee and other creditors.
In 1932, the Kentucky Military Institute of Lyndon, Kentucky, rented the Hotel Venice and the Hotel San Marco as a winter school for its cadets. It purchased the property on Dec. 15, 1939. For the next nearly 40 years, cadets, teachers and some parents would arrive by rail shortly after New Year’s Day and stay in Venice until Easter. In 1971, with the Vietnam war a heated controversy around the nation, the military school closed its doors.