Issue: Issue Winter 2010-2011

He Would Overcome - Remembering Architect Paul Williams

 Noted architect Paul Revere Williams (1894-1980) rose to prominence in Los Angeles when deed restrictions barred African Americans and Asians from living in many of the city's neighborhoods.  Today, Williams is recognized as one of our "starchitects" and homes attributed to him sell in the seven figures.

Photo courtesy of Karen Hudson

Orphaned at four, his foster mother recognized his talent for drawing. "Explore the city," he was advised and he carried sketchbooks and pencils to Sentuous Avenue Elementary where he was the only non-white student.

David H. Miller residence, 2601 Aberdeen Avenue, built 1926. The two-story English Tudor-style home near the Vermont Avenue entrance to Griffith Park is undergoing a major renovation.

On the path towards graduation from Polytechnic High, when he told his dream to a guidance counselor, "He stared at me with as much astonishment as he would have had I proposed a rocket flight to Mars," Williams remembered.  "Whoever heard of a Negro being an architect?" the man exclaimed. He set out to prove the man wrong. 

"USC was the school in the neighborhood," Williams' granddaughter Karen Hudson told the USC Trojan Family magazine, "and the school that accepted black faces."  In 1916 Williams entered a 3-year program in architectural engineering and graduated in 1919, supporting himself as an office boy in the landscape design firm which planned Beverly Hills and Los Feliz.  

L.E Blackburn residence, 4791 W. Cromwell Avvenue, built 1927. Officially Historic Cultural Monument #913, the Spanish Colonial Revival design exhibits its floor plan, spread over a hillside, in a clear acknowledgement of the "form follows function" principles of the new philosophy, modernism.

By the time Williams received an architectural license from the State of California in 1921, he was a member of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission where he could monitor developing subdivisions where buyers might be seeking an architect.  When he was accepted as a member of the American Institute of Architects two years later, he became the first African American to practice architecture. and was frequently called upon to speak and to advise.

 "If prejudice is ever to be overcome," Williams would tell his audience, "it must be through the efforts of individual Negroes to rise above the average cultural level of their kind."  Tenacity, charm, self-confidence, talent: the four traits served him well in dealing with the well-healed.  But it was his adherence to the gentlemanly maxim, "Discretion is the better part of valor" which won him a clientele of privacy seeking actors and industrialists, and kept his career moving full speed ahead for a half a century.  Hollywood, Hancock Park and Los Feliz contain a major concentration of Williams' designs, some of them grand and a few, genuinely modest.  The Assistance League headquarters came from his office late in his career, as did the Hollywood YMCA which was an early project. The broader Hollywood community contained such clients as Frank Sinatra, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, Lon Chaney, ZaSu Pitts, Barbara Stanwyck, Tyrone Power, William "Bojangles" Robinson and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.

Granddaughter Karen Hudson estimates that he was involved in 3,000 projects. In addition to his many residential projects, he is credited with the design of the LAX Theme Building.  After his death in 1980, Hudson embarked upon research to prepare his biography. Williams' own dream of writing his memoirs, which might have opened a window to his feelings, was stymied by failing eyesight in his senior years. Hudson herself was stymied by her grandfather's discretion.  What could she say about his impressions of people and places when he had left such a limited written record? 

Fortunately coverage of her project in the Los Angeles Times led 500 individuals to respond with their own Paul Williams accounts.  The unexpected deluge of letters revealed "his quiet, unspoken struggle against racism," Hudson wrote in her book, "Paul R. Williams, Architect: A Legacy of Style." He did not dwell upon "the challenges presented by his race, but for those who worked with him and engaged his services, the memories of unpleasant experiences were extremely vivid."

To "keep his distance," he taught himself to draw upside-down so he could sit across a desk from prospective clients.  Before his reputation was established, and he was a known leader in his field, visitors came to his office with no preconceived notions.  "The moment they met me and discovered they were dealing with a Negro, I could see many of them freeze," he wrote in a 1937 essay for American Magazine. "Their interest in discussing plans waned instantly and their one remaining concern was to discover a convenient exit without hurting my feelings."

Detail of Hollywood YMCA

There were a number of important turning points for African Americans, such as the Supreme Court decision in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education, but no decision was more important to blacks in Los Angeles than the court's 1948 overturning of restrictive covenants.  Angelinos like Paul Williams and his wife Della were free to buy a home, if they could afford one, wherever they chose.  Singer Nat King Cole's decision to buy in Hancock Park was met with resistance however, and many years passed before African Americans would feel comfortable integrating the city's costliest neighborhoods.

The Hollywood Hills, Los Feliz, Hancock Park, Beverly Hills and Bel Air are known for lovely Tudor, Meditteranean, Traditional and Hollywood Regency homes.  Paul Williams left more than elegant buildings as his legacy, he overcame many obstacles and his story continues to inspire generations. DH