Ray Watt, a California builder who successfully advocated for condominium reform in the Golden State and served as assistant HUD secretary in the late 1960s, died Tuesday in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 90.
Born in Colorado on Feb. 26, 1919, Watt was familiar with building at an early age; his father started in construction when Watt was five years old after moving to Los Angeles. The young boy grew up to spend the rest of his life in Southern California, where he attended college, majoring in business at the University of California—Los Angeles.
After pouring concrete and working carpentry in the summers as a teenager, Watt officially began his real estate career in 1946. “He got his start in the business during a housing shortage after World War II,” according to a statement by his family. “To meet the demand in Southern California he worked from dawn until dark and named his company Day and Night Construction to suggest the hours he was keeping.”
His first project? A manufactured home community that he built with his brother.
But Watt Companies diversified over time, developing everything from shopping malls and timeshares to condominiums and master-plan communities. One, Fairbanks Ranch in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., hosted the equestrian competitions for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
It was not the first brush with celebrity for a Watt development. In 1973, the builder successfully promoted a new community and its tennis amenities by sponsoring a “Battle of the Sexes” match between Australian women’s tennis champion Margaret Jean Court and retired tennis player Bobby Riggs. (Riggs beat her and went on to challenge Billy Jean King to a similar match; King won that one.)
But Watt was known for more than his marketing. He began building condos in 1960s, but soon encountered a tax and financing obstacle to the success of his plans. “We had co-ops,” Watt remembered, according to a 2006 article in California Builder magazine. “The problem was that you had one loan for the entire building. Every individual that bought a unit was liable for the taxes and the mortgage payment on the entire building.” He saw such a situation as problematic, and, according to his family, helped create laws allowing condominiums, not just co-ops, in the Golden State.
Later that decade, Watt went to Washington, serving as assistant HUD secretary to then-HUD Secretary George Romney. He returned to real estate in the early 1970s.
He received other industry honors during his career. In 1968, the Building Industry Association of California named him “Builder of the Year,” and he was inducted into the California Homebuilding Industry Hall of Fame in 1987.
Watt is survived by his wife Gwendolyn and his three children, in addition to grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His son, J. Scott Watt, began working at Watt Companies in 1958 and is currently chairman of the board.
Alison Rice is senior editor, online, at BUILDER magazine.
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