American Architect, Visionary, and Leadership Pioneer

I wanted to vindicate every ability I had. I wanted to acquire new abilities. I wanted to prove that I, as an individual, deserved a place in the world…Without having the wish to show them…I developed a fierce desire to show myself.” – P.R.W.

Paul Revere Williams was a visionary and a community orientated architect who synthesized art, science, mathematics and self-determination. These elements played key roles in shaping the visual landscape and philosophy of California architecture as we see it today. Beyond his signature styles, Williams also influenced the industry standard with his thoughtful and highly functional designs. During his 50-year career, he drafted plans for more than 3,000 structures, including civic and commercial buildings, hotels, luxury homes, and schools. Williams transcended racial barriers to become known as one of the most gifted architects of the 20th century and earned the moniker “Hollywood’s Architect” or “Architect to the Stars.” Before achieving these expansive accomplishments, he was a young Black child full of potential. For Los Angeles, it’s not a question of whether his life mattered; his life was essential.

Williams’ life had a challenging start, as he became an orphan at the tender age of four after losing both of his parents to a lung disease called tuberculosis. What happened next was very important for his development. Young Williams was adopted by an African American couple who showed him unconditional love. They instilled in him that he could do great things by cultivating his artistic talents and making the most of his opportunities. Selling newspapers as a paperboy, in the then undeveloped Downtown Los Angeles area, he learned what it meant to be self motivated, and the importance of building relationships. It was through selling newspapers that he would meet Frank Flint, a man who would later play a key role in his architecture career.

Williams had his sights set on architecture as a teenager. Perhaps he was motivated by William S. Pittman, the son-in-law of Booker T. Washington, and the one Black architect Williams knew about. While attending Los Angeles Polytechnic High School, he was met with words of discouragement from one of his teachers advising him to pick a different career, assuming White American clients wouldn’t hire him and not enough Black Americans could afford to hire him. While many young and impressionable students might have given up on their goal, Williams took the opportunity to press forward and continue his quest. After graduation, he started self-directing his developments by interning, training, and entering competitions through the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, as their first Black member. Design competitions played in his favor. Some reviewers didn’t know of his racial background, so they judged him based on the quality of his work. He received important mentions in publications, and his designs even won a competition. Williams was able to secure an apprentice position for a landscape architect/city planner and for an architect of luxury homes. Both helped inform his understanding of the “California Living” aesthetic and functionality.

In 1916, Williams became a certified building contractor and was able to garner the attention of a wealthy African American millionaire named Louis M. Blodgett, who commissioned Williams to design a two-story commercial building on South Los Angeles Street. He continued fine-tuning his talents and gaining insights by studying Architectural Engineering at the University of Southern California (USC) from 1916 to 1919.

It is said that where some of his white peers were able to use one, sometimes two pathways to become accredited architects, Williams used at least five pathways. For him, it was important to learn as much as he could, using all routes possible to ensure he would be an undeniable force and rise above the challenges set in his path. This led him to become the first Black architect to be accepted as a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the opening of his own office in 1923.

When Williams reconnected with Senator Frank Flint in 1922, Flint was developing Flintridge, CA, an affluent, segregated suburb near Pasadena. It was Paul Williams, the little boy he met selling newspapers, that Flint commissioned to build dozens of quality homes in this new Flintridge area. Soon after, Williams took his design language to the Mid-Wilshire/Hancock Park area of Los Angeles, where he built many houses. Although Williams was commissioned to design homes in Hancock Park, sadly, at the time it had a 50-year restrictive covenant that said non-whites could not own a home in the neighborhood. Williams continued to face discrimination, but his resilient nature and boundless courage drove him to continue to thrive in his practice. Another example of his supreme determination can be seen in a special skill he developed. When some of his clients were not comfortable sitting side by side with him, he learned to sketch upside down sitting across the table. The client would see the design right side up and developing before their eyes, momentarily pushing their prejudice aside to get the chance to live in one of Williams’ quality home designs.

What set him apart from other architects of the time was his ability to design based on the needs, desires and lifestyle of his clients, and then elevate them far beyond their expectations. Unlike other architects, Williams did not have the “luxury” to adhere to a signature style, so he took on the tremendous challenge to employ versatility. This allowed him to become an expert in many styles, including Spanish Colonial, Tudor Revival, Neoclassical Moorish, Mediterranean, Art Deco, Modern and many others. In addition, he could envision these styles at any scale. His innovation attracted the wealthy and famous residents of the Hollywood Hills with his signature use of curves, stunning staircases, detailed ceiling patterns and maximizing the indoor/outdoor capacity that defines the Los Angeles environment. Just some of his clients included Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Lon Chaney, Frank Sinatra, Barron Hilton, Cary Grant, Julie London, Bill “bojangles” Robinson and The Paley House. In a few cases, Williams was able to design plans for full neighborhoods, such as the beautiful Seaview community in Rancho Palos Verdes, consisting of 190 homes with 16 thoughtful floor plan layouts.

Although, he is well known for elegant luxury homes and large commercial structures, Williams saw architecture’s true form as a tool to serve all of Los Angeles, including those severely discriminated against, such as the African American community in South L.A. In order to make a much needed social impact, he made it a point to consider the budgets of all California citizens. Paying attention to the rapid growth of the population, he wrote a book, The Small Home of Tomorrow (1945), that outlined blueprints for affordable home designs that would empower the hard working middle- to lower-income members of society, as a way for them also to “make a house a home.”

In addition to serving on many planning committees, Williams lent his gifts to community based projects such as the Hollywood YMCA, the original St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, elementary schools, and community housing projects.

Another of the cases where he was able to design a whole neighborhood was in the Willowbrook area south of Watts. In the 1940s, a Black real estate agent, Velma Grant, saw a need for single-family homes for the emerging, middle-class African American population. In honor of George Washington Carver, a scientist and inventor, Grant named the neighborhood Carver Manor and enlisted Williams to design 250 quality homes, each with a unique design detail.

In 1952, Williams built his family a residence in Lafayette Square, in the Historic West Adams area of Los Angeles.

After an illustrious career, Paul R. Williams retired from practicing architecture in 1973 to enjoy the rest of his days spending quality time with his growing family. His design philosophy shaped Los Angeles architecture, which has influenced home design internationally. Included in his design language legacy are noted structures: the Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard, interior design for high-end store Saks Fifth Ave., the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the Palm Springs Tennis Center, Golden State Mutual building, MCA estate, the LAX Theme Building, Arrowhead Springs Hotel, UCLA’s Botany and Franz Hall II building, Howard University’s Lewis K. Downing Hall of Engineering, and the Founders Church of Religious Science. Williams was awarded a NAACP Spingarn Award in 1953 and was the first African American to be awarded the AIA Gold Medal award, posthumously.

Williams’ granddaughter, Karen Elyse Hudson, has been publicizing and writing about his work, including keeping his archives in great condition. In a recent transaction to preserve Paul Williams’ Legacy, USC School of Architecture and Getty Research Institute have jointly acquired Williams’ archive from Hudson. It is said to include a 35,000 plans, 10,000 original sketches, hand-colored renderings, photographs and other materials.

Paul Williams made the transition from the physical realm in 1980. His funeral was held at First AME Church, which he designed, and he was laid to rest at Inglewood Park Cemetery. He was survived by his two daughters and wife Della Mae Williams. It was said that Della Mae Williams played a key role in his overall success by creating a supportive atmosphere where he could focus his energy on his career and grow into the respected and successful architect he became. Thank you for your contribution, rest in Power!

Written by Michael-Jerrod Glover

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