Ray Watt (1919-2009): South Bay Developer Built Original California State College, Dominguez Hills Campus Across From Current University Site
Real estate developer Ray Watt, who built the original California State College, Dominguez Hills campus in 1966, died of natural causesthis week at the age of 90. The co-founder of the Watt Companies with his late brother Don, Ray Watt has been credited with defining the California lifestyle through his pioneering development of condominium projects, commercial shopping plazas, and time-share vacation homes. His high standards, innovative approach and commitment to the industry earned him the “Builder of the Year” award from the Building Industry Association of California in 1968. The following year, he was appointed assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Today, the Watt Companies offers real estate services across the United States, including commercial and residential development, asset management, and capital investments.
Judson Grenier, founding chair and professor of history, says that in 1966 Watt was contacted to build a temporary facility for the new college. At the time, the university, which had been chartered by the California State College board of trustees in 1960, was conducting classes in a California Federal Savings Bank building in nearby Palos Verdes. A larger place for a growing student body was needed while the permanent campus at Dominguez Hills was being built.
“Watt took a personal interest in facilitating the college move to the area and pledged to use all the resources of his enterprises to make it possible,” says Grenier.
According to Grenier, plans for the two-story structure contained a variety of classrooms, a large meeting room, a library and offices, to be built around a central quad that would serve for administrative, social, and recreational purposes.
“The pressure to build such facilities before the opening of the fall term was enormous,” he recalls. “As Watt recalled, in a later interview with Gil Smith (former mayor of Carson and one of the city’s founders) and myself, ‘We accomplished the goal in about 100 days, but it took all of our employees working almost full time to get it done. We suspended work on all of other construction projects in southern California, brought in our architects, truckers, carpenters, masons, plasterers, painters—you name it—to concentrate on preparing those facilities in time for the opening.’”
Photos in the university’s Digital Collections reveal an active campus life on the Watt Campus, with many programs, both academic and social, that brought students and faculty together. Thomas Philo, archivist and cataloger, University Archives and Special Collections, CSU Dominguez Hills, says that the unconventional new campus reflected the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s and provided an intimate setting for 180 students and 20 faculty members, many of whom protested matters ranging from racial violence to financial contributions to the Vietnam War by local bankers.
“It looked a lot like a motel,” he says. “But it seemed to work. For a small college just getting started, it seemed to ideally serve its purpose. If they wanted to get something going, they could get a lot of the students involved. It reflected the time of not just turbulence, but of involvement.”
The building that Watt provided for the first campus was later converted to condominiums after the campus was moved to its current site across Victoria Street in 1968. The facility continued to be used as an annex to the new campus until it was torn down for a residential project in 1972. According to Grenier, Watt countered the racism that pervaded the housing market of the times.
“During a period in which real estate covenants, real or practiced, were common in southern California, Watt opened his housing projects to all buyers, irrespective of race,” Grenier notes.
Grenier says that Watt maintained his interest in CSU Dominguez Hills long after his direct involvement with the campus and viewed higher education as an important component to building communities. A graduate of UCLA, Watt supported CSU Dominguez Hills and the University of Southern California in his philanthropic efforts.
“Watt himself dropped by to witness enrollment of the first students in September [of 1966], in the building known from that time forward as ‘the Watt Campus,’” Grenier recalls. “In the years that followed, he retained his interest in the success of what became California State University, Dominguez Hills and maintained his close relationship with Gil Smith, from whom he received periodic reports on the growth of the campus.”
Smith, who worked closely with Watt when he served on the Dominguez-Carson Coordinating Committee, says that the developer was responsible for many major projects in the area, including Scottsdale Estates, the first condominium development in Los Angeles County.
“Ray could not have been more committed to building quality communities which included educational facilities,” says Smith. “From day one with Cal State Dominguez Hills, he has made major contributions.”
- Joanie Harmon
Images above: The original architect's rendering of the temporary site of California State College, Dominguez Hills.
Students and faculty held a rally to protest state budget cuts in 1967.
The intimate size of the campus was conducive to academic and social activities for a closely knit student body.
Courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections