Remembering Paul R. Williams
Famed architect, Paul Revere Williams, was born in 1894 in Los Angeles and in the span of his 6 decade-long career went on to design almost 3,000 structures with a mastery of diverse architectural styles. Paul R. Williams was no ordinary architect of his time, he broke racial barriers when he became the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects in 1923, and later became the first Black Fellow of the Institute in 1957.
Orphaned at the age of 4, Williams was fortunate enough to have foster parents who supported his artistic and educational pursuits. Turn of the century Los Angeles was ethnically diverse, but by no means was it the melting pot that it is today. Reports from later in his life reveal that he was the only African American child in his elementary school. Paul R. Williams always expressed interest in architecture and design, although teachers and peers discouraged him because of his race. It was after graduating from Polytechnic High School that Williams began to focus on his dream of being an architect. He did personal studies, joined the Los Angeles Architecture Club, and competed in design competitions held by The Society of Beaux-Arts Architects.
Williams went on to study architecture formally at USC from 1916-1919, eventually beginning his career as a landscape architect while apprenticing at the firm of landscape architect and city planner, Wilbur D. Cook. It is during this time that Paul R. Williams began to develop his signature style and was recognized for his superior drawing and drafting skills. After apprenticing as a landscape designer, Williams worked for local Pasadena architect, Reginald Davis Johnson, who was known for designing luxury homes throughout Southern California. It is Johnson’s approach to Californian revival designs that pioneers the indoor/outdoor aesthetic and influences Paul R. Williams’ ideas.
In 1917 Williams married Della Mae Givens at Los Angeles’ oldest Black church, First AME Church. Williams would go on to design a new church for the congregation in the Historic West Adams District. Della Mae would also later become the cofounder of The Wilfandel Club, the oldest club dedicated to Black women in West Adams. Williams and Givens were an influential power couple in their community often spearheading philanthropic and social initiatives.
In 1921, Williams was appointed to the LA City Planning Commission and was granted official certification to practice architecture by the American Institute of Architects and by 1923, becoming the first Black member of the institute. At this time Paul R. Williams was working for LA Architect, John C. Austin, whose works completed while employing Williams include the Shrine Auditorium and Hollywood Masonic Temple. It is during this era that Paul R. Williams had his first commissions building luxury residences in the exclusive Flintridge area. It’s interesting to note that while Williams was designing and building homes for his wealthy white clients such as Louis Cass, founder of the Automobile Club of Southern California, and the widow of senator Frank Flint (who Flintridge is named after), he was riding segregated cable cars to his meetings and would not have even been able to stay overnight in the After Dark town of Flintridge. Paul R. Williams designed at least 10 homes in Flintridge, by far the largest concentration of his works in one area.
While Williams was designing homes for the wealthy upper class of Los Angeles, his heart and his business ethics always stood with the burgeoning Black community of Los Angeles. Following mass migrations from the South, many Black families found new homes on the west coast to escape the extremely embedded racism of the South. Williams socialized in circles of influential African American business people and other luminaries and leaders of the time. Central Avenue in South LA was the hub of African American culture and life, here Williams designed the Second Baptist church, one of the first major construction projects on Central. The pastor at the time urged the importance of hiring workers from all Black-owned businesses.
As the 1930s rolled around, Williams remained especially busy despite the Depression. Williams became the go-to architect for the stars of Hollywood. Although some of his designs could not be completed until later or had to be down-sized because of the economy, by 1934 Williams was seen as Southern California’s expert architect. Some of Williams’ most memorable civic and commercial designs are from this era such as Saks Fifth Avenue, MCA Headquarters, Sunset Plaza Apartments, and dormitories at Howard University, where he would continue a lifelong connection with the HBCU. During the 30s, Williams began to experiment with newer, cheaper materials and dabbled in prefabricated homes, setting the stage for later in his career working in post-war America as well as the modernist movement. Paul R. Williams’ career maintained its momentum during the tumultuous 1940s. Residential and luxury properties were in low demand because of the War, making traditional building supplies typically from Europe scarce. Williams found work in the public housing sector, most notably the housing development Pueblo Del Rio, the first integrated public housing in Los Angeles. During the war, Williams shut down his practice to devote his skills to various projects for the military. One of Williams’ projects during this time was Fort Huarache in Arizona, home to an elite division of African American troops. Williams designed their housing units as well as the recreation center. Because of Williams’ work for the government and the military, his fame and likeness was often used in war effort propaganda to rally African Americans to the cause.
By the 1950s Williams had settled comfortably into his renown. He had published two books, The Small Home of Tomorrow and New Homes for Today. The small home philosophy was something he developed throughout his career, stating a need for affordable housing, something that would become even more important as the population boom of the 1950s exploded. In 1952, Williams and his family made the move to Lafayette Square, home to an affluent African American community where Williams designed their home. He would live in this home until his death in 1980. Williams’ approach to architecture had transformed by the end of the decade, his philosophy had shifted from a suburban client in mind to an urban-minded approach that emphasized the social appeal of urban living.
Because of his established career and international fame, the 1960s and 1970s saw a boom in appreciation for Williams’ vintage work in areas like Flintridge. They were particularly admired for their high quality materials and true craftsmanship, a far cry from Williams’ evolution into prefabrication and small scale residential homes. While Williams is remembered as “Architect to the Stars,” he was also an architect to the people. His true work was in his community. It’s a peculiar dichotomy with Williams’ legacy, while his luxury residences and estates are cherished historic landmarks where people pay millions of dollars for pride of ownership, his civic and public works have either been demolished or at risk of being torn down in favor of newer designs. It’s easy to read about the hardships Williams overcame as one of Los Angeles’ most famous architects, and become inspired in his life; but we cannot forget the issues African Americans have faced as a whole in our country and continue to face to this day. We cannot praise Williams for his work in public housing and affordable homes when to this day, Black families are disproportionately rejected from home loans, making the American dream of home ownership nearly impossible. Williams’ footprint is all over Los Angeles and Southern California, designing nearly 3,000 structures in the course of his career. While Williams is arguably one of the most profound architects of America and there is a lot of study on his works and life, more effort has to be made to correct the lack of diversity in the field of architecture. As of 2015 there were 88,000 members of the American Institute of Architects, only 22% were women and only 2% were African American. The legacy of Paul R. Williams not only exists in the physical landscape of Los Angeles architecture, but in the canon of architectural history where his designs promoted inclusivity and equality.