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Family Built Dynasty as It Changed Face of Los Angeles

January 08, 1987|SAM ENRIQUEZ | Times Staff Writer

Shortly after he arrived in Los Angeles in 1893 to establish a medical practice, Dr. Peter Janss had a hunch that real estate development would be far more lucrative than mending bones. He was right.

With his two sons, he formed the Janss Investment Corp. and over three generations the family business developed an estimated 90,000 acres of Southern California property. After housing developments in Boyle Heights, Monterey Park, Yorba Linda and Van Nuys, the father and sons began building homes in the Sawtelle area.

And in the early 1920s, in a move that would have a dramatic effect on West Los Angeles, the family set the stage for its development of Westwood by donating hundreds of acres for the establishment of UCLA. The bold stroke also boosted the Janss fortune, according to Edwin Janss Jr., at 72 the oldest surviving family member and chairman of Janss Investment Corp.

Expansion to Ski Resorts

The business that started with Dr. Peter Janss and his two sons, Edwin Jr. and Harold, expanded its interests beyond Los Angeles into Thousand Oaks in Ventura County and then reached outside the state to take in two ski resorts--Snowmass in Aspen, Colo., and the town of Sun Valley, Ida.

In recent years, the operation has been run by managers as the interests of younger family members shifted away from development. Only Dr. William Janss Jr., 36, of West Los Angeles is now active in development. Even he admits it would be nearly impossible to duplicate the feats of his father, uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather.

Belvedere Gardens, which later became Boyle Heights, was one of the family's first development projects. As a sales incentive, the Janss Investment Corp. offered one of the first payment plans for "as low as $5 down and $5 a month," ads for the housing tract said.

The company then developed Ramona Acres, now Monterey Park, and converted 3,500 acres of orange groves into Yorba Linda. In 1910, the Janss Investment Corp. became the chief sales agent in a deal concerning 47,000 acres of San Fernando Valley property in what is now Van Nuys, according to newspaper accounts at the time.

But it was the 1911 marriage of Harold Janss to Gladys Letts, the daughter of Broadway department store founder Arthur Letts, that sent the Janss family fortune skyrocketing, Edwin Janss Jr. said in a recent interview at his home in the Sawtelle area.

The marriage ensured that Janss Investment Corp. obtained first rights to purchase nearly 3,300 acres owned by the Letts family in the West Los Angeles area that would later become Westwood Village.

The Janss family bought the land in 1922 and began building homes in the Sawtelle area between Santa Monica and Pico boulevards.

About the same time, Dr. Edwin Janss Sr. proposed that part of the land be used for the site of UCLA, Edwin Jr. said.

Before the University of California regents visited some of the sites under consideration in the Los Angeles area, Edwin Sr. arranged with the owner of a chauffeur service to have several Janss employees pose as drivers to hear firsthand the pros and cons of each, Edwin Jr. said. Edwin Sr. and others later used the information to point out the disadvantages of the other sites during negotiations.

Built Westwood Village

The ploy evidently worked. The Janss Investment Corp. donated 385 acres for the university, a gift estimated to have been worth $3.5 million, and then designed and built surrounding Westwood Village. The company 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. Ads for the developments said prices ranged from $800 lots near Pico Boulevard to $150,000 in Holmby Hills Estates.

Edwin Sr.'s two sons, Edwin Jr. and William, began to battle their uncle, Harold Janss, for control of the family firm. Harold was the father of three daughters who were not interested in joining the family business. The power struggle resulted in the Janss family splitting its holdings, with Edwin Sr. and sons retaining about 10,000 acres of land in Ventura County's Conejo Valley and Harold keeping Westwood.

Harold sold his Westwood holdings shortly afterward and retired.

The conversion of the 10,000 acres of Ventura County ranch land into Thousand Oaks housing was the last major Janss family development.

But the rapid development of the Conejo Valley site was a fluke, said Edwin Jr., who lived on the family ranch there from 1932 until 1964. He said he was not very interested in development when his father, Edwin Sr., handed over control of the firm to him in 1954.

Raised Horses

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

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