Lear Theater - Paul Revere Williams
Paul Revere Williams - 1894-1980
In honor of Black History Month, Artown pays tribute to groundbreaking African-American architect Paul Revere Williams, here in the month of his birth on February 18, 1894. The link to the documentary at the conclusion of this article tells the moving story of the remarkable life of one of America’s most important architects. A prolific and canonical figure in 20th century American architectural design who, tragically orphaned in 1898 before the age of 4, overcame all obstacles in his pursuit of excellence--developing, refining, and adapting his considerable gifts--to thrive in an industry and social climate of humiliating and career-limiting bigotry, racial segregation and prejudice. But Williams’ soul was not crushed by the inequality, it instead soared, to help him create timeless architectural monuments.
Williams was the architect who helped to define the multi-style style of Southern California residential architectural design and is particularly responsible for communicating the idea of the California lifestyle to the world through his work. He was known for using light the way a photographer would, to illuminate areas of his structures in an interplay with the sun and natural landscape. His designs made maximum use of a property’s lot positioning and topography; his homes were known for showcasing stunning views and integrating the interior with the exterior environment. Williams is credited for helping create what would come to be known as the Hollywood Style, a mixture of Mediterranean, European, and colonial influences that spoke to refined, affluent tastes.
Today the preeminence of Williams’ architectural aesthetic has never been more pronounced as his 127th birthday is celebrated this week by historians during Black History Month. His structures are obsessed over and sought-after, and the architect’s present resurgence can be even more appreciated, due to his humble beginnings in a downtown Los Angeles that was a true melting pot, alive with the promise of the American Dream.
In 1894 the downtown LA that Williams was born into was bustling with immigrant families of all races. The city had ballooned in population from 50,000 in 1890 to 100,000 in 1900, as people came west for opportunity and the promises of the California sun. The national socio-political backdrop to that decade of western expansion is peppered with tumult:
- In 1894 – The Pullman Strike began and spread nationwide throughout the summer until being put down with violence by federal troops in Chicago, killing 26 civilians.
- That same year the U.S. Congress designated the first Monday of September as a holiday, Labor Day. In part as a peace offering following the violent crackdown on the Pullman Strike.
- In 1896 – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy vs. Ferguson that the “separate but equal” principle of Jim Crow laws in the segregated south were legal.
- In 1898 – The U.S.S. Maine stationed in the harbor in Havana, Cuba explodes. The U.S. declares war with Spain 10 weeks later.
Iconic LAX Airport
At the same time, Southern California was considered an oasis of sun, open space, orange groves and bean farms, with ocean front beaches stretching as far as the eye could see. In fact, it was the promise of good weather that drove Williams’ parents from their native Memphis, Tennessee, to California, in hopes of it having a solarium effect on their fragile health. But with their fruit business failing, both parents were to succumb to consumption within four years of their arrival.
Williams was adopted from the foster care system by family friends the Clarkson family. His older brother Chester was nine years older than Paul and he was raised by another family. Chester would later die in his early twenties from pneumonia.
By the turn of the century, LA’s black population was just 3,100 and Williams later wrote that he was the only black child in his class in grade school. The Clarkson family would tell young Paul, “You are so bright, you can do anything you want.” Williams’ adopted mother became devoted to his education and to the cultivation of his artistic talents. Perhaps due to the death of both of his parents from tuberculosis and the early separation from his brother, Williams would decide that he wanted to design homes for families. Strong was his yearning for the structure and safety of family and place.
“Your people can’t afford you, and white clients won’t hire you.”
Williams did not heed these warnings from his well-meaning high school guidance counselor, though employment uncertainty was nearly absolute. Foregoing architecture school, Williams instead attended various art schools (Los Angeles School of Art and Design, as well as the Los Angeles annex of New York’s Beaux Arts Institute of Design Atelier) and engineering school, to sharpen his conceptual, drafting, landscape architecture and materials science knowledge. Williams became a licensed contractor in 1915. He earned a degree in architectural engineering from the University of Southern California in 1919, and in 1921, became a certified architect in California.
In a radio interview, Williams’ granddaughter and biographer Karen Hudson recalls, “From his own notes he said he put on his best suit… had his little briefcase and he went knocking on doors.” Approaching all the area firms that he admired, Williams showed them his portfolio--and they all said no. “But if they smiled when they said no, then he went back the next day and kept knocking,” says Hudson. “And finally, he got two offers: one for $3 a week--maybe $5--and one for nothing. But he took the job that was for nothing, because he thought he would learn more and be in a better position to advance. And after the first week they started paying him.”
In 1922, already in possession of his license to practice architecture in California, Williams hung his own shingle, launching his firm Paul R. Williams & Associates. With the 1920’s Southern California real estate boom in full swing, Williams’ firm grew rapidly as word-of-mouth spread about the gifted young architect’s design abilities and unique aesthetics. He built affordable homes for the working classes and his name was starting to be mentioned in the mouths of corporate titans and Hollywood nobility.
Williams’ prize-winning design competition entries caught the attention of early mentors like LA architect John Austin (Griffith Park Observatory, LA City Hall, LA Shrine Auditorium) and Reginald Johnson, both of whom had clout and access to clientele that Williams could not reach due to his race. Word spread in elite circles about Williams immeasurable talents and his client base grew yet again.
La Concha Motel - Las Vegas. Now the Neon Museum
But prejudice was always a factor in William’s early career. Many of the neighborhoods Williams designed for were closed to home purchases to blacks. In meetings, some of his white clients had never personally interacted with a black person, let alone actually touched a black man or met as equals--so complete was the segregation of the races. In response, Williams was always careful to make sure his grooming was immaculate; his suits freshly pressed and his office in perfect order to receive his white clients. Williams toured job sites with his hands behind his back and would greet clients with his hands in his pockets, waiting to see if they extended a hand of friendship first. In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, white Americans were still visibly shaken and expressed discomfort being in close quarters with a black man. In order for his white clients to avoid having to stand next to him at office meetings, Williams taught himself to expertly draw upside down from the other side of his desk, as his renderings of his clients’ ideas came to life before their eyes—at a comfortably safe distance.
Williams’ dedication to the art and science of his profession earned him the moniker of “Architect to the Stars” in a career that spanned five decades from 1923 to his retirement in 1973. He eventually broke the glass ceiling of commercial real estate design after making his name in residential developments. Some of his noteworthy career projects included membership on the Jet Age design team of the Theme Building at LAX (with the top LA architects of his day Welton Becket, Gin D. Wong, Charles Luckman, and William Pereira), a structure unlike any in America, that was influenced by the “Populuxe” architecture of midcentury modern design. Williams designed the iconic Founders Church of Religious Science in LA, Hotel Granada in Bogota Colombia, the Neon Museum of Las Vegas, St. Jude’s Research Hospital in Memphis and numerous apartment complexes and churches. Williams designed several projects in Reno, most notably, downtown’s Lear Theater, formerly the First Church of Christ Scientist; the Loomis Manor Apartments in the Riverwalk District; The El Reno Apartments (a pre-fab project of 15 2-bedroom unit tiny homes, many of which are still standing at their original locations), and the Luella Garvey residence—which was originally a duplex—that was later converted to a single family residence in 1970.
Williams’ celebrity clients from Hollywood’s Golden Age included the likes of Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez Jr. Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, Lon Cheney, and Danny Thomas. Present day luminaries like Ellen DeGeneres, Andy Garcia and Denzel Washington have owned Paul Revere Williams homes. Williams made additions to the Beverly Hills Hotel (that signature florid font on the Crescent Wing, which the architect designed in 1949, is Williams’ own handwriting!), designing the iconic Polo Lounge and the popular Paul Williams Suite, which is still preserved in its original 50’s motif, with bespoke curved bar, grand piano, living room, fireplace and spacious patio. In all, Williams designed over 3,000 structures worldwide and has built a legacy that will stand through time immemorial.
In 2017, Williams became the first African American architect to receive (posthumously) the American Institute of Architecture (AIA) Gold Medal, the venerable organization’s highest award of distinction.
“Our profession desperately needs more architects like Paul Williams. His pioneering career has encouraged others to cross a chasm of historic biases. I can't think of another architect whose work embodies the spirit of the Gold Medal better. His recognition demonstrates a significant shift in the equity for the profession and the institute."
— William J. Bates, FAIA, in his support of William's nomination for the AIA Gold Medal in 2017., Architectural Digest
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