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Ben C. Deane, 92; Developer's 'Artistic Eye' Helped Define the California Style in Residences

October 08, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Ben C. Deane, an innovative developer-builder whose homes helped define the California style in home building in the 1960s in Mission Viejo, Lake Forest and other master-planned communities, has died. He was 92.

Deane, a longtime resident of St. Helena, Calif., died Oct. 1 in a hospital in Napa, his family said. He had been battling Parkinson's disease

A 1982 inductee into the National Housing Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C., the Oakland-born Deane began his career as a carpenter in the late 1930s, first in San Francisco and then in Alaska and Hawaii.

During World War II, he headed personnel and recruitment for a company that had been contracted to develop facilities in Canada for getting oil to the coast of Alaska, where it would be refined for aviation fuel for the war in the Pacific.

After the war, he began building houses in the San Fernando Valley and other areas. In 1958, he and his brother Jim formed a new company, Deane Bros.

With Ben as president and Jim as vice president, the then-Van Nuys-based firm began by building tract houses in San Jose, then focused on Huntington Beach, Diamond Bar, Mission Viejo, Saugus, Westlake and Lake Forest. They also built Barrington Plaza in West Los Angeles, one of the largest apartment complexes in Los Angeles County.

By 1967, the then-Newport Beach-based Deane Bros. was one of the five biggest homebuilding companies in America.

The firm achieved national acclaim for its garden kitchen, which was first offered in its master-planned development in Diamond Bar in 1964. It was considered the first major change in kitchen design since the turn-of-the-century and revolutionized kitchen design nationwide.

Designed to achieve "indoor-outdoor living," it featured large gold anodized sliding windows that opened onto a serving bar in the patio, thus blending the kitchen and patio into a single area.

Deane Bros. later offered what it called the garden home, designed so that the backyard seemed to be part of the house.

"The whole theme was indoor-outdoor living, not only in the house but in the communities," Jim Deane told The Times on Friday. "We were one of the first to build swim-racket clubs in each of our communities."

The indoor-outdoor concept proved popular.

One builder told Jim Deane that he had been studying the brothers' new housing development in Diamond Bar, trying to determine why Deane homes were selling so well. He finally concluded that it must be because of the large entry wall on the main road bearing the community's name, Diamond Point, then an uncommon feature for a tract of houses.

But, Deane said, "he didn't see the overall picture. That [entry wall] was just an introduction of what became a way of life: It was the design of the homes, the design of the community, the amenities -- everything."

What has been described as one of Deane Bros.' boldest endeavors was the firm's plan to build more than 2,000 houses in 494 wooded acres in unincorporated El Toro in Orange County. The model homes opened in the spring of 1968, with prices ranging from $27,995 to $32,995.

With the houses built among long-established eucalyptus trees and with two clubhouses on artificial lakes, the new community was named Lake Forest.

When residents of El Toro voted for cityhood in 1991, they also voted to rename the new city Lake Forest, a name many residents considered more chic than El Toro.

In 1966, Deane Bros. merged with Occidental Petroleum. Ben Deane continued as president and served on the board of Occidental Petroleum for several years before starting a new company, Newport Beach-based Deane Development, with his son Larry.

"One of the beauties of the man is that he came from an art and music background," said Larry Deane, noting that his father spent a couple of years at UC Berkeley on an art scholarship but had to drop out because of the Depression.

He also was a musician and singer, occasionally singing with his friend Les Brown's band.

"From that creative background and his ability to see things from a more artistic eye," Larry Deane said, "he was therefore able to direct his team of architects, engineers and landscape architects from a completely different point of view. He could see things that nobody else could see, not even the architect."

In 1999, about a decade after Deane retired, Builder Magazine included him on its list of America's 100 most influential leaders of the 20th century.

Noting that Deane was one of the first builders to use a team of architects, engineers and designers to create homes, the magazine said he "was able to bring custom California home design into the average American family's price range.

"While many California builders quickly copied Deane Brothers' design concepts, Deane kept his company at the top of the industry through repeated innovations ... and his canny ability to win market acceptance for the company's homes."

Deane was one of the early key contributors to the Newport Harbor Art Museum (now the Orange County Museum of Art) and served on its board of trustees.

He also was an advisor to the Federal Housing Administration, a trustee of Chapman College in Orange, board chairman for the Center for Urban Affairs at USC and a lifetime board member of the National Assn. of Home Builders and he served as president of the Home Builder's Assn. (predecessor to the Building Industry Assn.).

In addition to his brother Jim and son Larry, Deane is survived by his wife, Robilee, his daughter Janet; three grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and his stepchildren, Duncan, Robin, Kirk and Logan.

A celebration of Dean's life will be held for friends and family members in November.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, Grand Central Station, P.O. Box 4777, New York, NY 10163, or Music in the Vineyards, P.O. Box 6297, Napa, CA 94581.

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