Developed in the 1930s, Venetian Gardens is an interesting example of a showplace park that never developed into an actual attraction.
Venetian Gardens is one of the prettier places in Lake County. Located in Leesburg, the public park has an interesting history – a history that is as much about what could have happened as what did happen. The history of the park began in the midst of the Great Depression. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “alphabet agencies” that was created to pull the US out of the Depression. The WPA put men to work building public works projects such as roads, bridges, schools, airports, housing and parks.
In 1938, the WPA began working in the town of Leesburg (population of 4,113 in 1930) on a cove in the northwest corner of Lake Harris. Leesburg received $84 thousand in federal money and the city added another $27 thousand to create the park. Richard Forester, who was the head of WPA park projects in Florida, was the designer of the park. He was a landscape architect who also designed Ravine Gardens in Palatka, another WPA project and now a state park.
Venetian Gardens was designed to convert a swampy area by the lake. By creating a series of six small islands with narrow meandering canals around them, they were able to take the mucky lake soil and turn it into gardens that locals used for growing vegetables to supplement their Depression-era tables. The islands would eventually be linked with seven pedestrian bridges.
The park’s design included ornate bridges, rock gardens, wading pools, a baseball park and activity areas around the pool that had been built nearly 10 years earlier. Then there were the goldfish ponds. These ponds were rather creatively fed by runoff water from the ice plant nearby. The water would run to the park alongside and then under the road to supply the ponds. The park is great for picnicking, exercise and dog walking. It’s been renovated recently by the city and looks fresh and attractive. A new community center has replaced the old one.
Over the years, Venetian Gardens always looked as if it had the potential to grow into something more than just a city park. Partly, it’s the name that evokes grandeur and romance. It’s true that the Leesburg canals look nothing like those of its Italian namesake, however, they could have been developed into something special. Expanding further into the lake, there could have more islands and canals with gondola rides, pretty young women in Renaissance dress, peafowl roaming the grounds, an amphitheatre for shows and a grand palazzo for shopping and dining. But of course, that’s just speculation.
Leesburg was passed by nearly all of the development that occurred in Florida in the 1960s and 1970s. That’s at least one of the reasons Venetian Gardens didn’t develop into a tourist park. If it had been close to Florida’s Turnpike or one of the Interstates, Leesburg might have been tempted to make it a botanical garden, zoo or other attraction. But, as it stands, Leesburg today isn’t substantially different than it was in the 1960s.
Located next to the Gardens are the Leesburg Boat Club and the Venetian Cove Marina. Lake Harris (13,788 acres – 5,580 hectares) is the largest lake entirely in Lake County. It’s fed by the Palatlakaha River, which winds through the Clermont Chain of Lakes. As part of the Harris Chain of Lakes, Lake Harris feeds the Ocklawaha River which is a tributary of the St. Johns River. This means Harris is directly connected to the Atlantic Ocean.
Venetian Gardens is worth a quick visit to explore what Florida was like prior to World War II and the subsequent golden era of Florida tourism.