A Family's Fortune

Times Staff Writer

Generation after generation, the Janss clan acquired and developed the Los Angeles metropolitan area, including Westwood, Thousand Oaks and Van Nuys. One after another, they came, saw and built. Now they are resting.

While the Janss Investment Corp. was busy developing the conservative, white-collar city of Thousand Oaks during the 1960s, the firm's chairman of the board, Edwin Janss Jr., was out protesting the Vietnam War and collecting wild pop art.

"At that time we had a damn good team working for us, so I had the time," recalled Janss, 72, in a recent interview at his home in a modest West Los Angeles neighborhood.

Janss, who earlier in the decade had been asked to serve on a Third World development commission by President John F. Kennedy, ended up on President Richard Nixon's "enemies list" for his anti-war activities.

Meanwhile, Thousand Oaks was added to the Janss family's list of successful developments that included Westwood, Boyle Heights, Monterey Park, Yorba Linda and parts of the San Fernando Valley, as well as two ski resorts--Snowmass in Aspen, Colo., and Sun Valley in Idaho.

Over three generations, the Janss family has developed an estimated 90,000 acres of Southern California property. In recent years, the family operation has found good managers to run the family business, even as the interests of family members such as Edwin Jr. shifted from the pecuniary to the aesthetic.

But the conversion of 10,000 acres of Ventura County ranch land into Thousand Oaks housing was probably the last major Janss family development. A recent breakup of the family holdings and a dwindling interest in development among younger family members has all but ended a family dynasty that built housing for more than 65,000 people in its first 10 years in business.

The last Janss family member who still lives in Thousand Oaks, Larry Janss, the son of Edwin Jr., said that his interests are more or less confined to operating the Conejo Village Bowl, a bowling alley that is his share of the family business. Larry's cousin, Dr. William Janss Jr. of Westwood, is the only family member still active in development, but family members say he has a long way to go to match the accomplishments of his father, uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather.

It was coincidence rather than entrepreneurship that sparked the Conejo Valley development, recalled Edwin Jr., who lived on the family ranch there from 1932 until 1964. He said he was not much interested in development when his father, Edwin Sr., handed over control of the firm to him in 1954.

"My interest was in having a good time; I excelled at that," Janss said.

Edwin Jr. had spent the previous 20 years raising thoroughbred horses on the family's Conejo Ranch. At one time he had 300 horses in his stable and 25 horses training at the Santa Anita race track.

Although Edwin Jr. had already developed land near Camarillo into the Las Posas Country Club and Estates, he took over the family business reluctantly.

"I ended up converting a harness shop into our office," Janss said. "I made my dad so nervous--he was constantly looking over my shoulder--that he died of a heart attack four years later."

After Edwin Jr. began building four houses for his employees on Thousand Oaks Boulevard in 1955, passers-by started asking the price of the new homes, Janss said. At that time there were still fewer than 2,500 people living in the area, he said.

"After about 100 people stopped to ask how much they needed for a down payment on the houses, my accountant said, 'You better start selling houses,' " Janss said. "Up until that time, it was pretty primitive out there."

Janss purchased 96 acres for the Conejo Oaks housing development and, before the tract's three model homes were finished, all 98 lots in the development were sold, he said.

The company purchased other properties, including the Lynn Ranch and Borchard Ranch. Over the next 25 years, the Janss Investment Corp. was involved in the development of about 20% of the land in Thousand Oaks, mostly in the area west of Moorpark Road.

"We parceled out the land and had others subdivide it," Janss said.

As demand for housing grew, Janss hired sales and finance experts to oversee the day-to-day development of the Thousand Oaks-area properties that eventually included the city's first industrial park, as well as the Janss Mall and The Oaks shopping center. The Janss firm also developed water and sewage companies to serve the expanding area.

"I was basically lazy. What I wasn't interested in, I turned over to somebody else," Janss said.

Although the Janss family was never active in local politics, after Thousand Oaks was incorporated in 1964 the family firm donated 10 acres of land where the Civic Center eventually was built, and offered an adjacent 10 acres that the city later purchased. For nearly 20 years, the Janss Foundation gave the city $25,000 a year to spend on charitable causes.

While Edwin Jr. was watching over the family's Thousand Oaks-area development, his brother, William Janss, supervised family cattle holdings in the Coachella Valley. In 1964, William, a former alternate to the U. S. Olympic ski team, moved to Sun Valley, Ida.

Later that year, the Janss family corporation purchased the 4,300-acre Sun Valley ski resort from the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1968, the two brothers split their holdings, with Edwin Jr. keeping the Conejo Valley area properties and William keeping the ski resorts that by then included Snowmass.

"Eventually we just got too big for a one-family company," Edwin Jr. said.

But the two brothers were following the pattern set by a previous generation of Janss brothers.

After family patriarch Dr. Peter Janss arrived in Los Angeles to establish his medical practice in 1893, he discovered that real estate investment was far more lucrative. By 1906, he had formed the family real estate corporation with his sons, Dr. Edwin Janss Sr. and Harold Janss, according to newspaper stories at the time.

To sell one of the family's first projects, Belvedere Gardens, which later became known as the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles, the firm offered one of the first payment purchase plans "as low as $5 down and $5 a month," advertisements for the housing tract said.

The family then developed Ramona Acres, now known as Monterey Park, and converted 3,500 acres of orange groves into Yorba Linda.

In 1910, the Janss family real estate business became the chief sales agent for the sale of 47,000 acres of San Fernando Valley property in what is now Van Nuys, according to newspaper accounts at the time. Profits from this venture were used to purchase and develop a 1,000-acre subdivision in Van Nuys.

That same year, the Janss family purchased its Conejo Ranch property for about $10 an acre.

But it was the marriage in 1911 of Harold Janss to Gladys Letts, the daughter of Broadway department store founder Arthur Letts, that provided the catalyst to the Janss fortune, said Edwin Janss Jr. That marriage ensured that the Janss family corporation obtained first rights to purchase nearly 3,300 acres owned by the Letts family in what would become the Westwood area, he said.

The Janss family eventually bought the land in 1922 and the family began building homes in the Sawtelle area between Santa Monica and Pico boulevards. Employees of the firm at that time were offered shares in development of a 300-acre parcel there that reportedly earned a $7 profit for every $1 invested.

At about the same time, Dr. Edwin Janss Sr. proposed that part of his West Los Angeles land be used for the site of the University of California at Los Angeles, Edwin Jr. said. The regents of the University of California were considering several sites in the Los Angeles area at the time, he said.

Before a visit by the regents to several potential university sites, Edwin Sr. arranged with the owner of a chauffeur service to have several of his employees pose as drivers to hear firsthand the pros and cons of each of the sites, Edwin Jr. said. Edwin Sr. and others later used the information to point out the disadvantages of other sites during negotiations.

The ploy evidently worked. The Janss family company donated 385 acres for the university site, a gift estimated to have been worth $3.5 million, and then designed and built the surrounding Westwood Village. The family built its Spanish-style corporate headquarters at the three-way intersection of Westwood Boulevard and Broxton and Kinross avenues, which it occupied until the mid-1930s.

After construction began on UCLA in 1927, the Janss Investment Corp. started development of homes in Westwood Hills, Holmby Hills and Holmby Hills Estates. Prices in the area ranged from $800 lots near Pico Boulevard to $150,000 view lots in Holmby Hills Estates, advertisements for the development said.

Edwin Sr.'s two sons, Edwin Jr. and William, eventually began to battle for control of the family firm with their Uncle Harold, the father of three daughters who were not interested in joining the firm. So the Janss family split its holdings, with Edwin Sr. and sons retaining the Conejo Valley and Harold retaining Westwood.

Harold Janss sold his Westwood holdings shortly afterward to the Kirkeby Co. and retired.

Keeping peace among the Janss heirs and managing their assets in recent years has been the job of Joseph Leggett, president of the Janss Investment Corp. since 1972 and trustee of several Janss family foundations. He began working for the company in 1962 as an accountant.

The family corporation, Leggett said, "was like a big watermelon with a dozen straws, everybody sucking on a straw. My job was to keep them all sucking at the same pace."

But, in 1981, after the death of Florence Janss--Mrs. Edwin Janss Sr.--the family company was divided again, with the fourth Janss generation trading in their shares of family stock for family assets.

"Now," Leggett said, "everybody has their own little piece."

For Larry Janss, 36, who grew up on the family's Conejo ranch, his inheritance is the bowling alley, nightclub and coffee shop on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, across the freeway from the old family home that was donated to the city. He laments that his two children don't have the same "10,000-acre backyard" that he enjoyed while growing up.

"I'm not interested in development," Larry Janss said. "When I was born here, the population was 3,500 and now it's more than 100,000. . . . You can't stop development, and I'm glad my family did it because my father did it right, with a balance of residential and commercial. But, when I grew up here, it was just beautiful hills and open valleys."

And, in retrospect, Ed Janss Jr. says now that even the best planners of the day could not have predicted the tremendous growth in the Conejo Valley area and the subsequent traffic and congestion there.

"If Thousand Oaks were a bare piece of land, and had we known the number of people who were going to be there, we could have designed a much better place," he said.

But, Janss added, "it's still probably the best bit of suburbia in Southern California."

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