Lee Chapin Sammis

Lee Chapin Sammis passed away February 12, 2013, in his home in Newport Beach, CA, where he lived and built his business for the past 50 years.  He was born on February 15, 1931 in Los Angeles to MIT graduates Ford Woodruff and Constance Sharp Sammis.  His family lived all over the country during the depression until settling in Pasadena, CA where he graduated in 1949 from South Pasadena High School.  The experience of frequently being the new kid in class shaped his scrappy nature and he became an inveterate reader, mechanical tinkerer and collector extraordinaire of many things.  Ambition and tenacity being innate, he was a teamster in San Pedro at age 14 for 65¢ an hour, had his driver’s license at the same age, trained with legendary boxer Canto Robletto to win a Golden Gloves title as a teen, played football with distinction at South Pasadena High and won intramural track meets in the 100 yard dash, all while faithfully keeping a full social calendar.  He often hitchhiked down to the beach at Balboa in those years to sail the family Thistle, swing at the Rendezvous Ballroom and attend Bal Week festivities.  He attended UCLA and UC Berkeley where he was an active member of Phi Gamma Delta Fraternity and Skull & Keys, amongst others.  Lee also worked as a hasher in the Kappa House at Cal to supplement his diet and “foster fraternal relations.”  After college he enlisted in the Army, being discharged in 1957 a 1st Lieutenant stationed at Fort Ord.  He married his beloved wife, Joan Howard of Pasadena, in 1955 and they settled in their hometown in 1957.  He worked in Los Angeles for RA Rowan and in 1962, the family moved to Newport Beach, where he was a founding member of the Orange County office of Coldwell Banker on PCH in Corona del Mar.

During his 8 years with Coldwell Banker, he was one of the top producers in the nation, having the exclusive listing for the Irvine Industrial Complex.  In 1965, Lee completed two of the largest land sales in Orange County history, which still stand today.  He was one of the principle real estate brokers to promote and market development around the growing Orange County Airport area, land that was bean fields and orange groves a decade before, endeavoring to lure major corporations and industries south.  In 1968, Lee Sammis moved on to become one of the founding partners of the Koll Company, developing and designing millions of feet of industrial and office space in California and surrounding states.  In 1974, The Lee Sammis Company was formed to continue his visionary real estate concepts, receiving countless awards for architecture and quality in a boom climate, which fit his “go for it” personality.  He expanded into many emerging markets, including the Sacramento area, New Jersey, Northern Virginia, Arizona and Florida, innovating new building types and exporting them to other states.  He attained legendary status in the real estate industry, pioneering the joint venture partnership and garden office building concept and was ranked the nation’s 14th largest industrial developer in 1988. 

Over his 50 years in the business, he built everything including residential, retail, industrial and commercial, but his favorite part was the “art of the deal” and the creative process of finding the right piece of land and building the right product on it for future growth.  Lee Sammis Associates was formed in 1989 in the state of Virginia where his high-tech office parks flourished along the Dulles corridor.  He focused on master planned communities and researching market and growth trends, just in time for the economic slowdown of the 1990’s which changed the real estate culture to this day.  It has been said that he was “the best land man in the country.”  Lee also honed his skill early and was successful in many entitlement battles, often fighting hard to get a project built.  He has spent the last decade as an elder statesman, mentoring many and providing well earned guidance and wisdom in his capacity as a trustee and honorary lifelong member of the Urban Land Institute, NAIOP and IOPC, giving speeches and writing analyses of the evolving economic and real estate trends.  A common theme was overbuilding and globalism, having gained the unique perspective of a man who participated in the land game during several cycles encompassing his many years in the trenches of real estate development.  He always said that he would never retire, and remained to the end a participant in the process.

Beyond his real estate career was his family and hobbies.  He was a packrat and filled his homes and warehouses with his collections.  He was an antiquarian and connoisseur of nautical history, and he never left the house without the ubiquitous hat, to fit the occasion.  He was a true character, prolific writer, inspired correspondent and famous wit and prankster, pulling off some fairly infamous capers in his college years.  He had the unusual gift of speaking backwards without thought.  His heroes were Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt and Ike.  He loved Jujubees, sailors wools, words, enchiladas, lead soldiers, licorice, his family, Kipling, fast boats, music of all kinds and Jonathan Winters.  He and his wife Joan enjoyed many adventures on their Hatteras “Shazam”.  They both loved Hawaii and traveled there often, indoctrinating their children in the passion of Hawaiian music and culture.  Lee Sammis was a lifelong animal lover and was famous for bringing home strays or stopping on the freeway with a car full of people to rescue a wandering dog.  And his children always knew that every family vacation included looking at property, or as they coined it, “dad’s tire kicking.”

He is predeceased by his extraordinary wife and devoted partner in life, Joan Howard Sammis, his nephew Brett Sammis, father-in-law Nelson A. Howard, and his parents.  He is survived by his mother-in-law Elizabeth Buckingham Howard of Santa Barbara, his brother and wife, Don and Fernanda Sammis of Hailey, Idaho, their children and grandchildren, his daughters Diana Buckingham Sammis Brookes, Virginia Lee Sammis, Caroline Howard Sammis and Anne Elizabeth Sammis, son-in-law Robert Jordan Brookes, Jr., and grandchildren Chelsea Beck Sellem and her husband Johan Sellem, Savannah Julia Beck, Sammis Nelson Gayner, Cassidy Caroline Gayner, Joanna Buckingham Brookes, Christina Valentine Brookes, Michelle DeForest Brookes, Alena Lucia Arrigo and one great grandchild, Delainy Joan Léon Sellem, all residents of California and Colorado.  He leaves a legacy of humor, creativity and brilliance, and millions of written words.  A private family service will be held at an undetermined time.

He requested that any donations be made to the Orange County SPCA at:

Orange County SPCA
P.O. Box 6507
Huntington Beach CA 92615
phone: 714 374-7738   fax: (714) 960-0554

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