For the L.A. real estate community as presently composed, it is safe to say there was never a time without Dick Lewis. Until just recently.
The veteran real estate PR man passed away at 89 in November. He had an epic run, one that paralleled his milieu.
Lewis hung his shingle the year John F. Kennedy supplanted World War II hero Ike Eisenhower in the White House, having blocked that particular single-family detached home from a Whittier native named Richard Nixon. That was 1960.
Over the next decades, Lewis became an industry icon, the exemplar bravura real PR man placing innumerable stories in area media about the property titans who gravitated to his stable. It was the postwar boom in Southern California – the county population surged 70 percent, or by 2.9 million residents between 1950 and 1970, while per-capita incomes rose 63 percent from $11,166 to $18,190 (2008 dollars). The business scene about doubled.
It was Fat City in the Wild West and not only expressed by money: Lewis once groused to the current-day doyen of Angeleno real estate journalists, Roger Vincent of the Los Angeles Times, that he – Lewis – could no longer show up unannounced at a reporter’s desk at the Times, copy in hand and story to pitch.
Younger readers might be shocked to learn there was a time before smartphones, before the Internet and even before fax machines. Consequently, PR touts sometimes delivered copy by hand, for a face-to-face with a captive audience, that being the reporter.
Old-timers might remember the Times Sunday Real Estate section edited by Dick Turpin, more friendly to property lords than not, though a welcome change from the overt advertorial package it replaced. In its heyday in the 1980s, the Times Real Estate section reached 64 pages, with an editorial staff of seven, fattening the Sunday issue to a weight reportedly lethal to small dogs nailed by errant newsboy tosses.
With a hungry hole like that to feed, Lewis signed up clients that nearly defined the real estate industry, including Home Savings (H.F Ahmanson, financiers of endless housing tracts), Lewis Homes (a builder that was unrelated to Lewis) Shappell Industries (homebuilder), the Irvine Co. (land), Grubb & Ellis (brokers), Turner Construction and Kajima International (construction), and architects Johnson Fain Pereira Associates, among others too numerous to mention.
Not only that, they say Lewis made “Leisure World” a household name.
Lewis was ready, too, when local commercial real estate coverage began in 1971, itself a story. An office broker named Howard Sadowsky, then of Julien J. Studley, complained to Times-er Turpin about the dearth of nonresidential real estate reporting. Turpin challenged Sadowsky to change the status quo, and the broker typed up a sample interview of himself, and sent it in. Turpin ran the Sadowsky template word for word, and thus began SoCal commercial property coverage. From that austere beginning was launched a generation of property reporters, who breathlessly echoed broker takes on office leases, cap rates and the values of gigantic towers, often expressed by square foot.
It took a while for property journalists to discover there also exists in Los Angeles a gigantic warehouse market (about a billion square feet today—yes, billion) and a lively retail property scene. And not that many people buy office towers.
As the decades rolled by, a ubiquitous Lewis became synonymous with real estate events, conferences, property pow-wows of any sort. Lewis, a spare figure in a snug, dapper suit and wearing a toupee, made an event official, a property conclave worth attending. When I had the privilege covering Southland dirt in 1985 for the now long-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Lewis was a made industry player, then running his own fair-sized shop.
Southland property markets have evolved since 1960, but then so did Dick Lewis, handling his client Killefer Flammang Architects to the end of his life, a shop known for downtown L.A. infill housing projects. Lewis pitched the client to the property websites with all the tenacity he once cornered the ink-stained.
Still, it comes to me that when we bid adieu to Dick Lewis, we also say farewell to a brash L.A. era, of horizonless housing developments, scattered office districts, smog, drive-in movie theaters, huge daily newspapers and powerful regional – and oft homegrown – business enterprises.
Gone are the Home Savings, the Atlantic Richfields, the Security Pacifics, the Union Oils, absorbed by bloodless national corporations wherein Culver City is confused with Covina. The Internet dominates local real estate coverage now – see LA Curbed, Bisnow or Globe Street – and the future of daily paper and ink is blighted.
But as one who saw and lived through the Dick Lewis Era, I can tell you this: It was a great run.
Benjamin Mark Cole, formerly of the Los Angeles Business Journal among other news organizations, now works for MT Newswires. He lives in Thailand.
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