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Paul R. Williams, Architect: Recognize a Great One

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The famous terminal at LAX was the work of black architect Paul Rever Williams.

Paul R. Williams

(1894-1980)

 

"Planning is thinking beforehand how something is to be made or done, and mixing imagination with the product – which in a broad sense makes all of us planners. The only difference is that some people get a license to get paid for thinking and the rest of us just contribute our good thoughts to our fellow man."
-- Paul R. Williams

Paul Revere Williams (1894-1980) was a celebrated architect and an African American -- a combination that few of his contemporaries imagined possible. By proving that it was possible, and doing so over a career spanning 50 years, Williams earned a special place in the history of Southern California architecture.

Williams was born February 18, 1894 in downtown Los Angeles soon after his family arrived from Memphis, Tennessee, where his father had been a hotel waiter. Both parents died before Williams was five, and he was raised by foster parents.

Williams was the only African American in his elementary school class, and because he was adept at drawing animals and buildings, a family friend who was a builder suggested that he become an architect. Upon learning what an architect did, Williams was enthralled. His guidance counselor at Polytechnic High School disapproved, however, and pointed him toward law and medicine, saying, as Williams later recalled: "Negroes will always need doctors and lawyers, but they build neither fine homes nor expensive office buildings." "Who ever heard of a Negro being an architect?", the counselor added. At the time, Williams could name only one, William S. Pittman, the son-in-law of Booker T. Washington.

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Paley Residence, bel air, 1934 Paul R. Williams

Encouraged by his family, Williams held firm, and upon graduation from high school enrolled in an L.A. workshop of New York’s Beaux Arts Institute of Design, eventually winning the Institute’s medal of excellence. His first job in an architect’s office came by consulting the Yellow Pages and visiting the offices in geographical sequence. His weekly salary was $3.

At age 20,Williams won first prize in a city planning competition in Pasadena, California, and did well in two other design competitions before enrolling as an architectural engineering student at the University of Southern California.

Upon graduation he attended three arts schools before joining the offices of residential architect Reginald D. Johnson where he given the assignment to design a $150,000 home. "Before I embarked on my architectural career, I had never been in a home that cost more than $10,000," he later wrote. "When my employer gave me the assignment for a $150,000 home, I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t imagine how you could spend so much on a home. My employer sent me to look at some homes in Santa Barbara and I soon found out." He later joined the commercially-oriented offices of John C. Austin, where he helped prepare construction drawings of the Shrine Auditorium and the First Methodist Church, among others. In 1917 he married Della Mae Givens whom he met at the First AME Church (the marriage produced two daughters).

Williams became a licensed architect in 1921; a year later, at age 28, he started his own firm, aided by commissions from the new Flintridge development north of Pasadena, including one by a former high school classmate, Louis Cass. By this time he was a member of Los Angeles’s first City Planning Commission, one of many federal, state and local boards and commissions he would serve on. He called it: "Giving back to the community."

In 1923, Williams joined the Southern California chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), becoming the first African American member of the national organization. (He would later become the first African American elected to the AIA College of Fellows.)

Most of Williams’s business came from well-to-do white clients building homes in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Hancock Park, Bel Air, Pacific Palisades, San Marino, Flintridge, Pasadena, and Ojai. There also were occasional commissions within the city’s African American community, including the Second Baptist Church, Connor-Johnson Mortuary and, in 1925, the 28th Street YMCA, the city’s first YMCA for "colored boys and young men."  Williams incorporated likenesses of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington in the building’s fašade.

By the end of the ‘20s, Williams had established a reputation as "a skilled and sophisticated designer for the upper middle class and the wealthy," wrote art historian David Gebhard in Paul R. Williams, Architect: A Legacy of Style, a book by Karen E. Hudson, the architect’s granddaughter and director of his archives. Gebhard also noted that, like most small architectural firms in the L.A. area, Williams "could not move easily from the world of residential design to that of business and government. But Williams alone suffered the continual presence of racial prejudice."

In a July 1937 article in American magazine titled "I Am a Negro", Williams acknowledged his feelings about racially-restricted housing that was prevalent in Los Angeles at the time. Referring to a client’s country house in "one of the most beautiful residential districts in the world," he wrote: "Sometimes I have dreamed of living there. I could afford such a home. But this evening, leaving my office, I returned to my small, inexpensive home in an unrestricted, comparatively undesirable section of Los Angeles…because…I am a Negro."

In the same article, he wrote: "Virtually everything pertaining to my professional life during those early years was influenced by my need to offset race prejudice, by my effort to force white people to consider me as an individual rather than as a member of a race. Occasionally, I encountered irreconcilables who simply refused to give me a hearing, but on the whole I have been treated with an amazing fairness."

Sensitive to clients who might feel uncomfortable sitting next to him, Williams perfected the skill of drawing upside down. This enabled clients review his designs right-side-up as he sketched them from across the table.

Williams’s business thrived during the 1930s. His residences were admired for their "play between the rational and picturesque," wrote historian Gebhard.

Traditional architectural styles such as English Tudor, Regency and Mediterranean were given a smart, contemporary look, elegant but non-formal, with a close relationship between the interior and garden. "The most admired features of a Williams design were often the staircases, usually dramatically curved," wrote Gebhard. Curved, smooth-flowing surfaces were also a feature of his commercial interiors. "Foremost to all Paul Williams designs was his perfectionism and attention to detail," wrote his granddaughter. From 1932 through 1935, he received commissions for over 36 houses. A June 1940 article in Architect & Engineer magazine said of him: "Perhaps no one architect on the Pacific Coast has achieved greater success in domestic architecture than Mr. Williams."

Commercial clients also were attracted by his growing reputation. In 1939 Williams won an AIA Award of Merit for his design of the elegant MCA building in Beverly Hills (later the headquarters of Litton Industries). He also designed the interiors of the original Saks Fifth Avenue building in Beverly Hills, then the exteriors and interiors of two Saks additions. In time he would design or remodel over 300 houses and places of business in the Beverly Hills area.

At the opposite extreme, Williams co-designed the first federally-funded public housing project in the country, Langston Terrace, in Washington, D.C. He was also chief architect of the Pueblo Del Rio housing project in southeast L.A., the only such project during the early ‘40s "planned as open to African Americans," wrote Gebhard.

During World War II, Williams served as a Navy architect. Immediately after the war, he wrote two books, The Small Home of Tomorrow and New Homes for Today, as home ownership guides for young families. His own firm, however, was engrossed in larger projects. In 1945, he designed a unit of L.A. General Hospital, making him the first African American to design a large public building in L.A. County. (Later credits included the Los Angeles County Courthouse and Hall of Administration.) In 1953 he was awarded the NAACP’s prestigious Spingarn Medal for contributions to his profession. His career was marked by numerous awards, including three honorary doctorates.

Over time, his firm designed public schools, banks, auto dealerships, the Arrowhead Springs Hotel (in association with Gordon Kaufmann), the W.&J. Sloane department store, the Palm Springs Tennis Club and the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building. His firm also re-designed the public rooms and bungalows of the Ambassador Hotel and the famed Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Celebrity clients came to include Frank Sinatra, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Julie London, and Anthony Quinn. Design commissions also came from Hawaii, Canada, Mexico and South America.

In the 1960s Williams was an associate architect in the design of new terminal facilities at Los Angeles International Airport, including the futuristic Theme Building with its flying saucer-shaped restaurant. He also volunteered his services to entertainer Danny Thomas for the initial design of St. Jude Hospital in Memphis.

Overall, Williams designed some 3,000 projects during his career, which ended with retirement in 1973. He died in Los Angeles on Jan. 23, 1980.

"Williams enjoyed the advantages of a career that afford him a close association with giants of industry, prominent politicians, and some of the most exciting people in the blossoming entertainment industry," wrote Karen E. Hudson in the preface to her book. "Still, nothing would deter him from addressing the needs of the growing African-American community. He took genuine pride in being able to influence the look and environment of his own community. From churches to mortuaries, youth centers to financial institutions, Williams believed that the visibility of his designs in the community where he lived and socialized was immensely important."

Awards

  • Omega Phi Psi Man of the Year Award, 1951
  • Spingarn Medal, 1953
  • Doctor of Architecture, Howard University
  • Doctor of Science, Lincoln University
  • Doctor of Fine Arts, Tuskegee Institute

Publications by Williams

  • Small Homes of Tomorrow
  • New Homes for Today

Public Buildings

  • First Methodist Church
  • Franz Hall, UCLA
  • Hollywood YMCA
  • Shrine Auditorium
  • Los Angeles County Court House
  • Los Angeles International Airport
  • Saks Fifth Avenue Store, Beverly Hills
  • Second Baptist Church, 2412 Griffith Ave.
  • West Coast Company Theatre
  • YMCA, 28th Street

Private Homes

  • Lon Chaney
  • William Paley
  • Charles Cottrell
  • Will Hays
  • Zasu Pitts