Ralph M. Lewis; Home Building Industry Titan, Philanthropist
Home building pioneer and philanthropist Ralph Milton Lewis, who created a $685-million development powerhouse before selling it to Kaufman & Broad Home Corp., died Thursday at San Antonio Community Hospital in Upland. He was 81.
A self-educated attorney turned builder, Lewis was one of a handful of building industry titans, including John D. Lusk, Eli Broad and William Lyon, who shaped the housing market in post-World War II Southern California. His Upland-based company built more than 60,000 homes and apartments, with as many as 30,000 of them in the Inland Empire.
“Ralph Lewis was truly viewed by everyone, in spite of his small stature height-wise, as a giant in our industry,” said Broad, chairman of SunAmerica Inc. “He will always be known for quality homes.”
Lewis was known among his peers as an astute businessman who effortlessly blended family and work. He formed Lewis Homes with his wife, Goldy, in 1955 and raised his four sons in a home his company built in Claremont.
“He created a sense of family and mutual respect among his sons,” said Bruce Karatz, chief executive and chairman of Kaufman & Broad. “They had a spirit of family that was admired by everyone who knew them.”
His sons continue to run Lewis Operating Co., which builds apartments and shopping centers in California and Nevada. Kaufman & Broad bought the company’s home building assets and the name Lewis Homes in 1998.
The Los Angeles-born entrepreneur was well known as a champion of fair housing, and worked to build affordable homes for first-time buyers of all ethnic groups from Upland to Sacramento to Las Vegas and Reno.
“He was a proponent of fair housing from the beginning,” said his son Randall Lewis. “He believed everyone has a right to a home. That wasn’t a very popular opinion 40 years ago in Southern California.”
Ralph and Goldy Lewis got in on the ground floor of California’s booming housing market in the mid-1950s after meeting many in the business through Lewis’ work as an attorney and CPA. Lewis, who passed the California State Bar examination without attending law school, retired from Lewis Homes in the mid-1990s.
Managing in Good Times and Bad
One of the company’s best-known developments is the 1,340-acre Terra Vista, a mixed-use community in Rancho Cucamonga with 5,000 homes, five shopping centers, an office park, medical center, schools and parks. Begun in 1984, Terra Vista will include about 8,000 homes when it is completed in five years.
Lewis weathered the ups and downs in the fickle housing market, including, in the early 1990s, the worst recession to hit California since the Depression, by investing profits in new projects and diversifying by buying shopping centers.
“His home building company was more successful than any home building company on a consistent basis over the years,” said Michael Meyer, an accountant and real estate consultant who worked with Lewis for 35 years.
His firm was the country’s largest privately owned home builder when Kaufman & Broad purchased it two years ago. Lewis won numerous awards, including Builder of the Year in 1987 from Professional Builder magazine. He was inducted into the National Assn. of Home Builders Hall of Fame in 1988.
Lewis believed his company should be involved in communities where it built homes, a rarity in the fiercely competitive home building industry. He worked with dozens of Little League teams and scholarship programs. He funded numerous parks, including Lewis Park in Claremont and the Lewis Family Park in Las Vegas.
His neighbors in the San Gabriel Valley said he was considered so pivotal in political life there that anyone who was thinking of running for public office had to first stop and get his blessing. He also volunteered his time on many boards and commissions.
A disciplined scholar, Lewis devoted much of his time to teaching accounting, finance, taxation and real estate at local universities.
“He was the best member of my family,” said Alan Kreditor, a senior vice president at USC and former executive director of the school’s Lusk Center for Real Estate. “He never asked me for pay, he always showed up, and then he gave $5 million for a building.”
The school used this endowment to build the Ralph and Goldy Lewis Hall, which houses the university’s real estate program.
The Lewises, both UCLA alumni, gave a $5-million endowment to UCLA in 1989, which the university used to found the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at its School of Public Policy and Social Research.
Lewis also published numerous articles in trade magazines, including the best-selling Land Buying Checklist, a pamphlet on buying land that he donated to the National Assn. of Home Builders in 1981. He revised it in 1985, 1988 and 1990.
Lewis is survived by his wife; sons Richard, Robert, Roger and Randall; and seven grandchildren.
The family requests that any donations be made in his name to the San Antonio Hospital Foundation, 999 San Bernardino Road, Upland, CA 91786.