L.A. Times Archives
June 26, 1990 12 AM PT

1864-66: James Irvine, a prosperous San Francisco merchant who came to California during the Gold Rush, buys parts of what had been three enormous Spanish land grants south of the small town of Los Angeles. The price is $25,000 for 108,000 acres. Irvine and his three partners raise sheep on the land. 1870: Irvine buys out his partners for $150,000. When Orange County forms 18 years later, Irvine will own a quarter of it. 1886: James Irvine Jr., known as "J.I.," takes over the ranch on his father’s death. 1894: The Irvine Co. is incorporated. 1906: After the San Francisco earthquake, James Irvine Jr. moves his family to the sprawling Orange County ranch. 1918: The ranch--a huge farm since the 1890s, when most of the sheep died in a drought--is now one of the largest lima bean producers in the world, with 60,000 acres planted. With citrus fruit and cattle, beans have made the Irvines one of the richest families in Southern California. 1937: The philanthropic Irvine Foundation is formed, and half the Irvine Co.'s stock is put under its control. That protects family members from inheritance taxes that might lead to the sale of the ranch. 1947: Eighty-year-old James Irvine Jr. dies during a fishing trip to Montana. Myford Irvine, his son, takes over. He begins developing small pieces of the ranch for the first time. 1957: Twenty-four-year-old Joan Irvine Smith, the niece of Myford Irvine, takes her mother’s seat on the board and begins a long fight with management. She argues that the company is not getting anywhere near the potential profits from the land and is shortchanging the family with shady deals. Meanwhile, the postwar housing boom turns the northern half of once-rural Orange County into a suburb of Los Angeles. The growth has yet to reach the Irvine Ranch, which stretches 22 miles across the middle of the county. But it is clear that it will. 1959: Myford Irvine dies under mysterious circumstances that are ruled suicide. With the last adult male Irvine dead, Joan Irvine Smith becomes the family’s chief voice on the board. 1960: The company donates 1,000 acres of land to build UC Irvine, largely at the urging of Smith, who realizes that the university will bring houses, shops and offices to her adjacent acres. 1963: Renowned architect-planner William L. Pereira unveils a master plan for the enormous ranch that envisions nothing less than an entire new city called Irvine. 1967: The Irvine Co. opens its big Fashion Island mall at Newport Center. It is upstaged by the bigger and more successful South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, which opens the same year. 1969: Smith, still feuding with the company, lobbies Congress for a change in federal tax law to require the nonprofit Irvine Foundation to relinquish ownership of the company. Congress later makes the change, and the foundation eventually begins looking for a buyer. 1971: Irvine residents vote for cityhood and begin a stormy relationship with the company that gave birth to the city. Irvine will grow to 100,000 residents and vault the company into the big league of developers. But the company will frequently be at odds with its independent-minded creation. 1977: With the company finally up for sale, home builder Donald L. Bren, Smith and some of the nation’s wealthiest men outbid Mobil Oil after a lengthy bidding war. They pay $337 million for the company, which the foundation had initially offered to Mobil for $200 million. Bren, the biggest stockholder, buys more than a third of the shares. The ranch has shrunk to 77,000 acres. 1983: After feuding with Smith and the company’s chairman, Bren buys most of the two-thirds of the Irvine Co. shares he doesn’t own for $500 million. In order to set a price on the other shareholders’ stock, Bren values the company at $1 billion. He offers Smith $88 million for her stock. Smith, however, says it’s worth three times that and alleges that Bren is trying to cheat her. She forces the company to sue so a referee, a retired court judge, can determine its value. The company still owns 68,000 acres. 1984: Bren speeds up the construction of houses, offices and factories on the land to repay the $500 million he borrowed in order to buy the company. While he manages to get huge projects approved by local governments, Orange County’s overcrowded roads and pressure from neighborhood groups make it increasingly difficult to develop the land as fast as he would like. 1987: The trial over the valuation of the company begins in August in Michigan, where the company is incorporated. The testimony will stretch well into 1988, with frequent timeouts for the lawyers to return to California and fine-tune their cases. 1989: Although testimony concluded in 1988, Referee Robert B. Webster in May requests more oral arguments in the complex case. The two parties’ strategies are clear: Bren downplays the worth of the land, contending that it was so uncertain how much local government will let him develop that he took an enormous risk in shelling out more than $500 million for the company. Smith contends that Bren fomented the hassles on the board in order to run off his partners and buy the company cheap. 1990: The court referee rules Smith should receive $149 million plus interest for her stock. Both sides express pleasure with the decision. Source: Los Angeles Times files and the Irvine Co.

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