There once was an exceptionally talented architect named Paul R. Williams who had to work extraordinarily harder than his peers because he was black. He built exquisite dwellings for the Hollywood elite and preeminent community buildings in Los Angeles. Williams persevered through tragedy and defied all the odds to become one of the most successful, yet largely unknown architects of his era.
In December 2016, 37 years after his death, The American Institute of Architects awarded Williams the 2017 AIA Gold Medal, the most esteemed award from the institution, putting Williams’ legacy at par with the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and others. He is the first African American architect to be bestowed with the AIA Gold Medal.
A Brief Life History of Paul R. Williams
Paul Revere Williams was born in 1984. By age 4, Williams was orphaned. His parents, who moved from Memphis, Tennessee for their health, had both died from tuberculosis. He and his brother were separated into foster care. His brother passed away later from pneumonia. Williams was lucky enough to be placed with a foster mother who encouraged his artistic talents and aspirations.
When Williams was growing up in Los Angeles there were very few African Americans. He was the only black child in school. Despite this he was surrounded by immigrant families and learned much about their customs.
Williams decided in high school that he wanted to become an architect. His guidance counselor told him he would not be able to get enough clients, being black, but fortunately he disregarded this and continued his pursuit. He took enough classes, learning about drafting, landscaping and materials, to be able to get contractor certification in 1915.
He then began searching for work with the architects in his area. Even after getting turned down by every single firm at first, he managed to convince 2 firms to give him an offer. One offer was for very little pay and the other offered no compensation at all. He took the one with no pay, feeling it would be a better learning opportunity, and soon enough they started paying him.
Thus started his professional career in architecture. From there Williams gained experience working for residential, commercial and landscape architects. He acquired his license to practice architecture in California and soon started his own firm, Paul R. Williams and Associates. In 1923 he became the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects.
When it came to clients, Williams bravely sought and won work despite the ubiquitous racism of the time. He astounded his clients with his work. He was always in tune with his white clients’ level of comfort around him, adjusting his interactions with them in order to keep their business relationship and the architectural undertaking intact. Williams’ design speed, social dexterity and overall talent referred him to many amazing projects.
From the 1920s to the 1970s, Williams designed all manner of buildings for clients ranging from school districts to movie stars. He had the extraordinary chameleon-like ability of being able to design work in any style. He was well known for drawing up sketches of his clients’ dream home right before their eyes across a table upside down. On top of designing thousands of buildings, Williams served on many municipal, state and federal commissions and was active in social and political organizations as well.
In 1973 Williams retired from practice and in 1980 he passed away at the age of 85.
Key Buildings and Keeping Williams’ Legacy Alive
During his 5 decades in architectural practice Williams designed extraordinary buildings in Los Angeles and beyond. In addition to those grand designs, he was well known for his small, affordable house designs for new homeowners. Williams published his inexpensive construction patterns in “The Small Home of Tomorrow” and “New Homes for Today”.
Paul R. Williams is credited for founding “Hollywood Style” – a blend of Mediterranean, European and Colonial design influences with consideration for drama and sophistication.
The architect designed mansions for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Barron Hilton, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Williams also worked on additions to the Palm Springs Tennis Club and the Beverly Hills Hotel.
He contributed to the stunning alien-futuristic Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport alongside architects William Pereira, Charles Luckman and Welton Becket.
Williams also did many pro bono projects. Most notable was his work on St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
A number of Paul R. Williams’ works have been named to the National Register of Historic Places, including:
- 28th Street YMCA – Los Angeles, CA
- Angelus Funeral Home – Los Angeles, CA
- Goldschmidt House – San Clemente, CA
- Second Baptist Church – Los Angeles, CA
Williams integrated a bust of Booker T. Washington on the façade of his 28th Street YMCA building to honor the most important African American educator of the 19th century, author of Up From Slavery. In 2015 the building was renovated into an apartment complex, helping homeless youth and low-income adults re-establish themselves.
His biographer and granddaughter, Karen Hudson, remembers him well. She has published a number of books on the architect. In addition, she took part in a 99% Invisible podcast episode all about the life and works of Paul R. Williams. She and Phil Freelon, an African American architect and advocate for Williams work, discuss his influence and remarkable tenacity during.
Tragically, Williams’ architectural business records were destroyed in a fire in 1992 during riots following the Rodney King trial. In an effort to maintain the legacy of the prolific architect, the AIA Memphis, Tennessee Chapter along with the Art Museum of the University of Memphis founded the Paul R. Williams Project. The project is dedicated to spreading awareness of the architect’s work, and his “extraordinary accomplishment” achieved against all odds due to the pervasive racism of the times and in his profession.