Nathan Shapell, 85; builder who developed Porter Ranch was also noted philanthropist

Times Staff Writer

Nathan Shapell, a leading California home builder perhaps best known for developing Porter Ranch in the hills of the northwestern San Fernando Valley, has died. He was 85.

Shapell, who lived in Beverly Hills, died in his sleep Sunday while returning to San Pedro on a cruise ship, said Richard Mahan, a spokesman for Shapell Industries.

Over the last five decades, Shapell had built more than 65,000 homes from San Diego to the San Francisco Bay Area.


A Holocaust survivor, Shapell also felt a responsibility to help others. He became a leading philanthropist in Israel and the United States.

“Nathan Shapell exemplified generosity, tolerance and civic responsibility,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told The Times on Monday in an e-mail. “He touched many lives with his work on state government reform, national drug-abuse resistance and worldwide Holocaust remembrance.”

Along with his brother David and brother-in-law Max Webb, Shapell founded Shapell Industries in the 1950s. Their first homes sold for $11,000 to $20,000, a 1974 Times story reported. Last year, the privately held company’s revenues were estimated to be between $400 million and $500 million.

“He is a giant in the California home-building industry, on the level of ... Eli Broad,” Randall Lewis, an executive vice president of Kaufman & Broad Home Corp. of Los Angeles, told The Times in 1999.

Shapell remained chairman and chief executive of the company known for high-quality construction and astute land purchases. Among its dozens of developments are the former MGM ranch in Thousand Oaks; the luxury home community Kite Hill in Laguna Niguel; and Promenade Towers, a 510-unit project in downtown Los Angeles.

After starting to build Porter Ranch exclusively as a housing development in the late 1980s, Shapell sought to expand it into a major commercial center. Residents strongly opposed the proposal because they feared increased traffic.


In the end, about 3,300 homes and 3 million square feet of commercial buildings -- about half the retail space initially sought -- were approved for the 1,300-acre site in the foothills of the Santa Susana Mountains.

For nearly 30 years, Shapell served on the Little Hoover Commission, the state’s official watchdog group, and chaired it for 18 years before stepping down in 1997.

Under his leadership, the panel saved taxpayers billions of dollars, according to a 1999 Times story. Among other achievements, the panel instituted Medi-Cal reforms, raised nursing home standards and reformed education spending.

Nathan Schapelski was born March 7, 1922, in Poland. He was the youngest of five children in a family that was in the textile business.

He was a teenager when the Nazis invaded and his mother was deported to the Targowa ghetto. Shapell helped some ghetto prisoners escape, including sneaking out children in oversized soup kettles.

When one young girl asked Shapell, “Where shall I go?” he answered, “Child, I don’t know. Run. Run,” he recalled in “Witness to the Truth,” his 1974 book.


“It made an indelible mark on his life,” Mahan said. “He swore that day, if he ever had a chance to help people, especially children, he would.”

Later, after Shapell was deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, Webb and several others saved his life by hiding him from guards.

“To my knowledge, I was the only one lucky enough to escape like this, and to all of those men I owe a debt,” Shapell wrote.

He survived forced marches to two subsequent concentration camps and was 23 when liberated at the end of the war. He spent the rest of the 1940s helping to build housing for homeless Jews in Munchberg, a small German town.

Only two siblings joined him. The rest of the family was believed to have been killed during the war.

With his wife, Lilly, a translator he met in Germany, Shapell moved to Los Angeles in 1952. Lilly Shapell died in 1994.


In addition to his brother David and brother-in-law Webb, Shapell is survived by his daughter, Vera Guerin; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. today at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, 6001 W. Centinela Ave., Los Angeles.

Instead of flowers, the family requests donations be made to Friends of the Israel Defense Forces,, or the Women’s Guild of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Pulmonary Diseases Program,