by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In 2012, GQ bestowed the title of “The Coolest Block in America” on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, the hip seaside enclave founded in 1905 as “Venice of America” by the enterprising namesake of the street. Today’s post highlights a pre-1885 stereographic photograph of Kinney’s Italianate residence at his 537-acre ranch, dubbed “Kinneloa”, east of Pasadena.
Kinney was born in 1850 in New Jersey, to Mary Cogswell (whose mother’s maiden name was Abbot–hence her grandson’s first name) and Franklin S. Kinney, a prominent attorney who made a fortune in real estate. Kinney was highly educated, with stints at Columbia College in Washington, D.C., where his father worked and was highly connected, and then in Europe at schools in Switzerland, the University of Heidelberg in German, and the famed Sorbonne in Paris.
Among his earliest professional endeavors was working with a Baltimore newspaper, but his big windfall came about 1870. Perhaps with financial backing from their father, who died in Italy in 1871, Abbot and his older brother Francis, who’d gone to sea in his youth, formed Kinney Brothers Tobacco Company, headquartered in New York. Despite a national depression, the firm benefited from a change in American smoking habits in which pipes and cigars were eclipsed by cigarettes. Kinney Brothers quickly became one of the “Big Six” manufacturers of cigarettes, which controlled about three-quarters of production in the nation.
In 1890, Kinney Brothers was acquired by American Tobacco Company, which developed a near-monopoly on the industry with a 90% share, for $5 million in stock and Abbot was a very wealthy man. Ironically, he was born with severe asthma and his condition was such that he headed where so many with lung ailments came in the late 19th century: the San Gabriel Valley.
Kinney was the foreign buyer for the firm and spent a great deal of time traveling abroad. In 1877, he spent three years traveling on a sabbatical, including significant stays in Asia, Australia and Hawaii. After he returned to America through San Francisco, he intended to go to Florida to seek relief for his asthma, but detoured through Los Angeles, arriving early in 1880.
Kinney headed to the Sierra Madre Villa, a resort at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains near Pasadena, only to find there were no vacancies. He was offered a billiard table for the first night and then pitched a tent on the front lawn. Enamored with the valley that, as were so many wealthy easterners, he stayed, quickly purchasing his ranch from a beekeeper (apiaries were popular during the era.) By 1883, the name “Kinneloa,” said to be a combination of his surname and “loa,” the Hawaiian word for “mountain”, was being used for his ranch, which was lauded as a showpiece for its gardens, agriculture and the Kinney residence.
Kinney also was involved in a notable project with Helen Hunt Jackson as the two were appointed by President Chester Arthur to write a report on the condition of southern California’s Indians. The 56-page document was submitted in 1883 and called for more government relief, additional reservation land, and greater educational opportunity. Predictably, the report’s recommendations were all but ignored and Jackson decided to write a novel to bring the plight of the indigenous to a broader public. Ramona, published in 1884, actually drew attention for the romance rather than the conditions of natives.
Married to Margaret Thornton, daughter of a California Supreme Court associate justice and father of five children by her, Kinney acquired land on the coast in and near Santa Monica. Because Margaret Kinney preferred the seaside to the hotter inland, the couple lived more frequently at the former. Later, Kinney sold his shares in the tobacco company to his brother. With the proceeds, he invested heavily in local real estate, including properties in downtown Los Angeles as well as outlying areas.
When the Boom of the 1880s erupted towards the end of the decade, Kinney took part in efforts to develop the town of Huntington, named for Central Pacific and Southern Pacific railroad empire figure Collis P. Huntington (and uncle of Kinneloa’s near neighbor, Henry E. Huntington.) The boom town came and went and Kinney managed to keep his ranch intact.
His next major projects, however, proved to be more successful. First, he and a partner acquired part of Rancho La Ballona and developed the Ocean Park area south of Santa Monica. After his partner died, a coin flip, suggested by Kinney, determined the division of the property, including an undeveloped marshland to the south of Ocean Park which Kinney received as the loser.
Taking his inspiration from the famed Italian city, he developed “Venice of America,” complete with canals and other trappings of European tradition. It also helped that Kinney soon launched a major investment in amusement through the Venice Pier and its Coney Island-inspired rides and attractions. Initially, the development was part of the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica, but, in 1911, residents voted to break away and form their own city.
Kinney was an avid writer of books on nature, philosophy and other subjects, gave land for a federal forest station in the Santa Monica Mountains near the town of that name, was head of a commission for Yosemite National Park. His lung problems, however, developed into cancer and Kinney died in 1920, just a few weeks before his 70th birthday.
Kinney left an estate that was rumored to be about $20,000,000, but was closer to $1 million. His Abbot Kinney Company was run by his son Thornton and the holdings at Venice, which became part of the City of Los Angeles in 1925, and the Kinneloa Ranch were among those capitalized by the firm. His wife Margaret died in 1911, but Kinney had a long-time mistress and married her, formally adopting their three children born before the nuptials.
Kinneloa Ranch was sold to an oil company owner in 1928 and was eventually subdivided, with Kinney’s house torn down in the 1940s before the area became built up with tract homes in the post-World War II boom.
The stereoscopic photograph of Kinney’s residence was taken by Thomas G. Norton, a Pasadena photographer who died in 1885. So, we know that the date was in the first half of the decade, probably about the time that the name “Kinneloa” shows up in newspapers, circa 1883.
The image shows the wood-frame Italianate home with a full wrap-around porch, a center rooftop pergola, unusual circular vent holes below the eaves and just a small portion of the expansive and expensive gardens around the structure, placed in a picturesque spot at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. The views from the home were also remarkable spanning the entirety of the valley and coastal plain to the ocean.
For a very interesting blog post about Kinney’s life, including his early views on race, women, Chinese immigration, labor and other issues and what may be modifications of some of those opinions, check out this link.