The California Gold Rush might not have panned out for many prospectors (get it), but it sure made a lot of shop owners rather wealthy. One of those shop owners was James Irvine. He owned a shop on Front Street in San Francisco, a Scotch-Irish immigrant that came to America during the Potato Famine. With his new found wealth he developed an interest in real estate. He bought a few other buildings in San Francisco and then, looking to buy a large plot of land in an inexpensive area, he became an investor in a sheep grazing operation in what was then a remote area South of Los Angeles.
Irvine slowly grew the sheep grazing area by buying up adjacent parcels, mostly from original Spanish land grant owners. Unlike others buying up ranches in the area, Irvine had no desire to parcel his land up to sell it off to the highest bidder. He saw the land as something that should stay in his family and be managed by his son James Irvine II. Eventually James Irvine Jr. (a title that he apparently hated) inherited the land and after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 he decided to move onto the property and try his hand at farming. It turned out he loved it. He grew the ranch into one of the most productive farms in the state.
James II’s love for farming influenced him in important ways. First, he decided to sell off large swaths of coastal land as the rocky landscape, sandy soil, and salt air did not allow for good planting. To support his growing farms he needed more water so he built a dam that created Lake Irvine. The love of working this beautiful piece of land also made James II decide to create The Irvine Foundation and give it 51 percent ownership of the Irvine Ranch. The foundation would use its portion of the profits to fund primarily educational, cultural, health care, and community-service organizations. Plus, this way the property would hopefully be free from any family infighting or conflicts of interest.
After WWII James II died and management went to his son Myford. Myford was not the first choice, the eldest son James III was groomed for the role but he died of tuberculosis at an early age. At the same time Myford reluctantly took control of the farm, the country fell in love with Southern California. People from all over decided to move west to live out the fantasy life they saw on their new televisions. More of a musician and golfer than a farmer, Myford focused his attention on bringing more people to the area. He founded the first Boy Scout Jamboree, which brought 50,000 people to the area every year. He leased land to Ford Aerospace, which brought in a few thousand employees and with them a need for more services. And he invited the great grandson of the famous Native American Chief Geronimo to start a tourist attraction called Buffalo Ranch on the property.
Eventually the family developed the area, even selling a large part of land for $1 to entice the state to build University of California Irvine, as a way to spur the local economy. Unlike other developers in the area who found the most value in building large subdivisions of cookie-cutter housing, the Irvine Company was known for its commitment to what we now call landscape architecture. They even hired acclaimed architect and urban planner William Pereira, designer of Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, to create a master plan guiding development and standards for the entire Irvine Ranch.
In 1977, the Irvine Foundation was forced to sell its share in the company to comply with new federal legislation. When James Irvine died in 1947, his bequest to the Foundation was valued at $5.6 million. Thirty years later, sales of the Irvine Company shares grew the Foundation’s endowment to $184 million. The Foundation endowment has continued to grow, reaching over $3 billion in 2021 and continues to advance their goal of helping lower income workers economically.
The family eventually sold their share in the company as well; it is now owned by billionaire developer Donald Bren. The Irvine Company owns several large retail centers, including The MarketPlace and Irvine Spectrum Center in Irvine and Fashion Island in Newport Beach. The Irvine Company also holds several office properties, particularly in Irvine and Newport Center, the 20th Century Studios Plaza in Century City, Los Angeles, the MetLife Building in New York City, and nearly 550 total properties throughout Coastal California.
Here is an instance where one of the biggest private real estate portfolios in the world was created out of nothing but a sheep pasture. At one time the family owned more than one fifth of what is now Orange County, the ninth largest economically in the country. Choosing a place to invest like Orange Country, with great weather for both plants and humans, has a lot to do with that success. But more than just the speculation, the Irvine family was able to create a real estate dynasty by doing what so few others have been able to do: stick to their convictions, share their wealth, and swap short term income for long term wealth.