African-American Architect Paul Williams Dazzled Hollywood

(Decades-long career combined grit, glamour, social conscience) (1001)

Much of the distinctive cityscape of Los Angeles was shaped by a visionary whose career was as cinematic as those of many of his film-star clients: architect Paul Revere Williams, an African American who surmounted racial prejudice to achieve extraordinary success in a white-dominated profession.

Williams (1894-1980) confronted hurdles from the outset. Orphaned at age 4, he was raised by foster parents who encouraged him to pursue his interest in architecture, even though his teachers scoffed at the idea. At the time, black architects were virtually unheard of, but Williams persevered, gaining admission to the Beaux Arts Institute of Design and the University of Southern California.

Determined to make a name for himself, the 20-year-old Williams entered and won an architectural competition in 1914. He was appointed to the first Los Angeles City Planning Commission in 1920 and became a certified architect in 1921, establishing his own firm the following year. According to Theodore Landsmark, professor of architecture at Boston Architectural College, Williams’ talent and tenacity helped dispel the initial skepticism of prospective clients and peers.

“His example underscores the fact that, despite barriers, highly creative individuals have been able to overcome race-based expectations,” said Landsmark. “Today, Paul Williams is viewed as a hero by young architects of color because of the quality of his work and because he was able to succeed at a time when blacks were subjected to overt bias.”

Williams constantly faced discrimination, but he dealt with it matter-of-factly. A superb draftsman, he developed a technique for rendering drawings upside-down, so that clients who might have been uncomfortable sitting next to an African American would be able to see his drawings right-side-up as they sat across a table from him.

Williams commented on the bitter irony of segregation, which prevented him from living in the restricted neighborhoods where he designed and built spectacular homes for others.

“Today I sketched the preliminary plans for a large country house which will be erected in one of the most beautiful residential districts in the world,” Williams wrote in a 1937 American Magazine article. “Sometimes I have dreamed of living there. I could afford such a home. But this evening … I returned to my own small, inexpensive home … in a comparatively undesirable section of Los Angeles. Dreams cannot alter facts; I know … I must always live in that locality, or in another like it, because … I am a Negro.”

He and his family eventually moved into Lafayette Square, a prosperous Los Angeles neighborhood, but meanwhile, Williams was busy with lucrative commissions.

Until his retirement in 1973, he designed some of the most important public buildings in greater Los Angeles – notably, the Beverly Hills Hotel, the MCA (Music Corporation of America) Building, the Los Angeles County Courthouse and the space-age Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (in collaboration with colleagues from two other firms).

Williams also designed private homes for celebrity clients such as Tyrone Power, Anthony Quinn, Barbara Stanwyck, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Lon Chaney Sr., Bert Lahr, Danny Thomas, Frank Sinatra, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, earning him the nickname “architect to the stars.”

Although a master of various architectural styles – Tudor Revival, Georgian, Spanish Colonial, French Chateau, Regency, Mediterranean – Williams was known for his elegant simplicity. He avoided excessive ornamentation, preferring clean lines and stylized elements that suggested historic references with a restrained use of period detail. Because of his classical training, Williams has been described as a traditionalist, but “there’s an interesting reassessment going on within architectural circles,” said Landsmark. Williams just as easily can be classified as a modernist, he argued.

Landsmark cited several of Williams’ iconic mid-century structures (including the Sinatra bachelor pad, the Palm Springs retreat owned by Ball and Arnaz, and the Los Angeles Airport Theme Building) as evidence of a streamlined aesthetic that embraced contemporary design.

Yet for all his high-profile commissions, Williams was equally proud of his work creating moderately priced housing for returning World War II veterans and building complexes that served the needs of low-income residents in Los Angeles, according to his granddaughter, Karen E. Hudson.

Other famous architects – including Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright – also were involved in designing affordable housing, “but, of course, their projects for wealthy clients received the most attention,” said Landsmark.

As “a man who challenged prevailing views of African Americans during his lifetime, Paul Williams stands as a role model” for young minority architects, Landsmark said. Williams often expressed a hope that more blacks would follow him into architecture. While African Americans still are underrepresented in the field, there are signs of change.

In an increasingly global economy, the profession is becoming more reliant on “architects who develop skills in new technology,” Landsmark explained.

“One trend that has appeared in the last five to eight years is the integrated practice, which has a digital format,” he said. With this type of practice, members of a team – for example, a project manager in India, an architect in Brazil, an interior designer in New York and a landscape architect in Jamaica – can be scattered all across the world, yet coordinate their efforts online to complete an overarching design scheme. “An integrated practice creates opportunities for a more diverse group of professionals to work together on a single project,” Landsmark said.

As the integrated practice becomes an industry standard, there inevitably will be greater participation among people of very different backgrounds, he predicted.

Landsmark praised several institutions – the University of Arkansas, the University of Maryland, Boston Architectural College and the New School in San Diego – for their commitment to recruiting minorities into their architecture programs. Much more remains to be done, he said, but today’s young architects recognize that “Williams’ heroic entrepreneurial activities during the 20th century have opened doors” for his 21st-century successors.