Edwin Janss Jr., a member of a family that developed thousands of acres of Southern California and a collector of pop art who ended up on President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” for protesting the Vietnam War, jumped to his death last week. He was 74.
Janss’ youngest son, Larry, said in an interview Saturday that he believes his father took his life Thursday because he was frustrated with his failing health, which had deteriorated since he suffered a stroke about 10 days earlier. He leaped from the 12th story of a Santa Monica building, apparently after visiting a doctor.
“I’m convinced he planned every step” of his suicide, said Larry Janss, 38. “This was not a spontaneous act of a disturbed old man.”
Edwin Janns Jr., who was known for his love of horses and underwater photography, was chairman of Janss Investment Corp. for about three decades.
Generations of Developers
Through four generations--from Dr. Peter Janss, who came to Los Angeles in 1893, to his great-grandson Dr. William Janss Jr.--the Jansses have played a historic role in residential and commercial development throughout the region. Through the Janss Investment Corp., the family of doctors developed about 90,000 acres of Southern California property, including Westwood, Thousand Oaks, Boyle Heights, Monterey Park, Yorba Linda and Van Nuys, as well as two ski resorts--Snowmass in Aspen, Colo., and Sun Valley in Idaho.
In the early 1920s, the family set the stage for the development of Westwood by donating hundreds of acres for the establishment of UCLA.
The conversion of 10,000 acres of hills and grassland in Ventura County into Thousand Oaks housing was among the last major Janss family developments. A 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.
In an interview two years ago, Edwin Jr. said he was more interested in raising thoroughbred horses than in development when his father, Edwin Sr., handed over control of the business to him in 1954.
Edwin had spent the previous 20 years raising 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.
“I ended up converting a harness shop into our office,” Edwin Jr. told a Times reporter. “I made my dad so nervous--he was constantly looking over my shoulder--that he died of a heart attack four years later.”
After he began building four houses for his employees on Thousand Oaks Boulevard in 1955, passers-by started asking the price for a new home. At the time, there were still fewer than 2,500 people living in the area.
After nearly 100 people inquired about new houses, 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, Janss said.
Within the next 25 years, Janss Investment Corp., with Edwin Jr. at its head, became involved in the development of about 20% of the land in Thousand Oaks. As demand for housing grew, Janss hired sales and finance experts to oversee the day-to-day development of the properties that eventually included the city’s first industrial park, the Janss Mall and The Oaks shopping center.
But according to Larry Janss, Edwin Jr.'s life was hardly limited to the family business. Larry Janss said that his father had no great interest in politics until the Vietnam War.
“The Vietnam war politicized him and radicalized him,” he said. Larry said his father was a member of a business group that protested the war and also contributed to liberal causes, including the Institute of Policy Studies, a Washington-based think tank. Later, in what he would call his “greatest honor ever,” Edwin Jr. was included in Nixon’s “enemies list.”
“He was actually proud of it,” Larry Janss said. “He laughed about it at parties.”
Edwin Jr., who left the development business about five years ago, was also an art enthusiast who put together a discriminating collection of contemporary art--including works by Frank Stella and Andy Warhol--in his simple West Los Angeles home.
But according to his son, Edwin Jr.'s greatest enjoyment was underwater photography. Larry Janss believes that part of the reason his father took his life may have been because his recent stroke had severely impaired his vision and hearing and left him physically unable to continue diving.
Edwin Jr. was most interested in photographing a tiny underwater sea slug called the nudibranch, which is found in the waters off Micronesia. “He was most satisfied when he was under water photographing these teeny, tiny snails,” Larry Janss said.
Besides his wife Ann, he is survived by a daughter, Dagny Corcoran of West Los Angeles, his two sons Peter, of Idaho, and Larry. Larry Janss said his father’s body will be cremated and his ashes scattered over the ocean this week.