John Nolen’s Gift...The City of Venice
Article and Photography Provided Courtesy of the Venice Area Historical Society
“Venice is the first city built to demonstrate what Florida can do to produce a community that is at once a fine resort of great charm and refreshment and a city serving all the everyday needs of a well-conceived, well-designed and soundly constructed municipality. The result is an inspiration to those who would make this world a better place to live in.”
V John Nolen, 1927
Thanks to its civic leaders, the city of Venice remains true to the details of the Nolen Plan, which was created by philosopher and architect John Nolen during the years of 1924-1929, as Venice adheres to its guidelines for street layout, landscaping and zoning. A combination of several concepts of city planning that emerged in the early part of the 20th century, the design takes features from the “City Beautiful” and the “Progressive City,” and draws most heavily upon the “Garden City” movement. Nolen’s philosophy took all aspects of city life into account, beginning with a centralized hub from which everything else radiated. The downtown area featured walkable streets, city parks, stores and residences for people of all walks of life, creating a vital cityscape for residents to get out and enjoy. Nolen knew the automobile was here to stay and made accommodations for vehicles. He also understood that materials and food had to be produced locally, and incorporated industrial and farm areas into his strategy. Reinforcing his belief in the “Garden City” aspect, his emphasis on the natural environs of the area kept nature in the forefront every inch of the way.
John Nolen (1869-1937) was born in Philadelphia and placed in the Girard School for Orphaned Boys. He graduated from the Wharton School of Finance and Economics at The University of Pennsylvania in 1893 with a degree in philosophy. By then, John had already formulated a philosophy of city life that identified management as its biggest challenge. He recognized that the requirements imposed upon cities by changing modern times would need to be met somehow, and he argued that local governments could either proceed through trial and error, leaving a trail of expensive mistakes in their wake, or they could think carefully from the outset and get it right the first time. As he saw it, the key to answering these challenges was having a plan.
Initially, John’s career involved adult education on a wide range of social issues. A conference in Europe in 1895 aroused his interest in architecture and landscaping. In 1903, John sold his house to pay for his enrollment at Harvard University, where he received his Master of Arts degree in 1905. He soon established an office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he and his associates branched out from landscape architecture into city planning. John was a frequent lecturer on urban design at the city and town level, and was active in many professional organizations. By 1919, he had written two books, edited two others, published dozens of articles, and was firmly established as a prestigious and innovative urban planner.
Following successes in other parts of the country, John headed south where he operated an office in Jacksonville, Florida, the state that he proclaimed “the last frontier.” In 1918, he designed a project for Dr. Fred Albee called Bay Point in Venice. In 1924, Dr. Albee bought an additional 1,428 acres, and John created a regional plan for all of Dr. Albee’s properties that reflected Nolen’s Garden City approach in the Mediterranean style that was already very popular and was being widely used in Florida. Due to the real estate slump, this property was sold in 1925 to the Cleveland, Ohio-based Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), along with an additional 25,000 acres. The BLE, impressed by Nolen’s conceptual design, hired John to expand his proposal even further. “Nature led the way,” wrote Nolen, and “the plan followed her way.” As a philosopher first and city planner later, John felt that a civic center, which defined not only the central area of the town, but also acted as a connector to the commercial core, was a crucial element. This hub was surrounded by tree-lined residential areas and ended at the “jewel in the crown,” Venice’s most sublime natural feature, the Gulf of Mexico.
John Nolen’s design principles include:
• School sites
• A designated area for municipal and public buildings
• Retail/commercial, industrial and residential sections
• Curved or hemispherical streets, boulevards and diagonal streets
• Parks, playgrounds and recreational sites
• Public ownership of the waterfront
• Incorporation of transportation features to provide access to the community
In addition to John Nolen, the other players in the development of Venice were:
• Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, an organization that provided financial support
• Dr. Fred Albee, entrepreneur and visionary
• BLE Realty Corporation, the company that handled the land
• Venice Company, the group that marketed and sold the property
• Walker and Gillette, supervising architects
• Prentiss French and Harold Heller, landscape architects
• George A. Fuller Construction, contractor
• George Youngberg Sr., chief engineer
John Nolen’s comprehensive conceptual design for the city of Venice remained incomplete as late as 1948, but it has never been abandoned. The New Urbanism movement of the 1980s revitalized interest in John Nolen’s ideas. In 1988, with the reestablishment of the Architectural Review Board, Venice again embraced these strategies, which sought to refine and enhance Venice’s unique sense of place. In recognition of the “specialness” of Venice, the city sought and received designation for the John Nolen Plan of Venice Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places on November 8, 2010.
As a result of John Nolen’s efforts, Venice remains a city where everything is interconnected, providing a wonderful legacy for the city of Venice.
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