Paul Williams — Architect to the people


Kevin Balluff panorama of los angeles from mt. wilson
(image source: Kevin Balluff)

Although it takes an incredible combination of cognitive dissonance, myopia (and usually some chauvinism) to deny that Los Angeles can be characterized by its amazing architecture, it does happen. Ironically, most of the blame for this fact can be placed on the shoulders of the self-appointed boosters in Hollywood, whose idea of Utopia seems to resemble a boring, wealthy, white sunbelt suburb more than the actual city of angels. For example, when a film wants to communicate that its setting is Los Angeles, most of the establishing shots aren’t of architecture at all. Instead audiences are subjected to images of the Hollywood Sign, the Walk of Fame, Venice’s Muscle Beach, Beverly Hills‘s Rodeo Drive, &c. Maybe they’re treated, too, to a shot of Welton Becket’s Capitol Records Building or Meyer & Holler’s TCL Chinese Theatre (formerly Grauman’s) — wonderful examples of architecture, no doubt, but ones reduced by their appearance in Hollywood establishing shots to items on a perfunctorily assembled checklist.

Angelus Funeral Home (1934)
Angelus Funeral Home (1934) (source: Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas)

It’s a shame because, as I said, Los Angeles has an amazing collection of architecture. It’s full of beautiful examples of Modernism, Googie (e.g. the aforementioned Capitol Records building), Streamline Moderne, Brutalism, American Craftsman, and Programmatic architecture, just to name a few of my favorite styles. There are literally thousands of beautiful buildings designed by the likes of Gregory Ain, Joseph Eichler, Greene & Greene, Richard Neutra, John LautnerCliff May, and William Pereira, just to name some of my favorite architects. It was actually seeing Los Angeles (the real one, not the Hollywood version) that truly awakened my love of architecture.

Paley Residence - 1934
Paley Residence (1934) – (source: Architectural Digest, Vol 9, Issue 4, 1933. Photographer unknown)

One of the great embarrassments of this great city’s history is that until 1948, many of these beautiful buildings were effectively off-limits to anyone not both white and Protestant. For many years, Asians, blacks, Latinos, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians and others were restricted as to where they could live or even visit. Even after Supreme Court intervention, racist homeowner associations, white gangs and developers expended a tremendous amount of energy harassing black homeowners who dared to look for homes outside South Central, Watts, and a few other usually economically depressed and overcrowded areas.

Paul Williams architect

One of the bitter ironies that one of Los Angeles’s most celebrated architects, Paul Williams (the so-called “Architect to the Hollywood Stars”), though largely responsible for shaping the look of the city, was nonetheless barred from living in his own creations because he was black. In Flintridge, where he designed his first home after starting his own company, the land deed said a black person could not even spend the night. In recognition of his greatness, importance, and Black History Month, here’s a brief introduction.

Paul Revere Williams, was born 18 February, 1894 in Los Angeles to Lila Wright and Chester Stanley Williams, a couple who’d recently moved from Memphis, Tennessee.  Tragically, the toddler was orphaned at the age of four after his mother died of tuberculosis. His father had died of the same illness two years earlier. He was separated from his only other family member, his brother Chester, when they were placed in different foster homes.

Arrowhead Springs Hotel & Spa (1939)
Arrowhead Springs Hotel & Spa (1939)

At Sentuous Street School, he was the only black student. After high school we studied at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design and at the Los Angeles branch of the New York Beaux-Arts Institute of Design Atelier. After working first as a landscape architect, he went on to design buildings whilst attending the University of Southern California, School of Engineering.

First AME Church
Williams’s First AME Church (source: The Paul Revere Williams Project)

Williams married Della Mae Givens on 27 June 27, 1917 at Downtown‘s First AME Church — Los Angeles’s oldest black church (In 1968, Williams built a new church for the congregation in Adams-Normandie, a neighborhood in South Los Angeles’s Westside and the Historic West Adams District). The couple went on to have three children: Paul Revere Jr, Marilyn Frances, and Norma Lucille. In 1945, Della Williams co-founded (with Fannie Williams) The Wilfandel Club, Los Angeles’s oldest club for black women, in the West Adams neighborhood.

Aaron Lilien residence, Los Angeles, circa 1946.
Aaron Lilien residence (circa 1946) – (credit: Maynard L. Parker)

Williams served on the first Los Angeles City Planning Commission in 1920. He became a certified architect in 1921 and from that year till 1924 he worked for architect John C. Austin before establishing his own office. He became the first black member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1923. In 1939, he won the AIA Award of Merit for his design of the MCA Building (now headquarters of the Paradigm Talent Agency).

Pueblo Del Rio model  Pueblo Del RioPueblo del Rio (source: The Paul Revere Williams Project)

Although he built homes for celebrities including Barbara Stanwyck, Bert Lahr, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Charles Correll, Danny Thomas, Frank Sinatra, Grace MooreJulie London, Leon ErrolLon Chaney, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Tyrone Power, Will Hays, and Zasu Pitts; Williams supposedly rarely discussed his wealthy clients and his real sympathies were with the poor. In 1933, mayor Frank Shaw appointed him to the city’s first Housing Commission and that year he also began serving on the National Board of Municipal Housing. He co-designed the country’s first federally funded public housing project, Langston Terrace in Washington, DC, in 1936. With Richard Neutra, he collaborated on the Pueblo Del Rio housing project in Vernon (a Los Angeles County city in South Los Angeles’s Eastside) in 1940.

The Small Home of Tomorrow  New Homes for Tomorrow

During World War II, Williams worked as an architect for the Navy. He later published two books, The Small Home of Tomorrow (1945) and New Homes for Today (1946). He was hired and later collaborated with architect A. Quincy Jones on several buildings in Palm Springs. He not only designed and built the Broadway Federal Savings and Loan (the first black S&L in the west) but also served as its vice president and director.

Palm Springs Tennis Club (1947)
Palm Springs Tennis Club (1947)

Williams ultimately designed more than 2,000 private homes, largely in Hollywood, Midtown, the Verdugos, San Gabriel Valley, and the Westside. Not only were those areas effectively off-limits to would-be black homeowners, Williams rode to them on Los Angeles’s segregated streetcars.

Marina del Rey Middle School - 1960
Marina del Rey Middle School (1960)

Angelenos may also recognize his work in Beverly Hills’s Saks Fifth Avenue; Civic Center’s Los Angeles County Courthouse and Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration; Crenshaw Manor‘s Angelus Funeral Home; Hillside Village’s Woodrow Wilson High School; the Hollywood YMCA; Marina del Rey Middle School; the Palm Springs Tennis Club, San Bernardino’s Arrowhead Springs Hotel & Spa; and South Central’s Second Baptist Church and 28th Street YMCA. One of Los Angeles’s most iconic buildings, LAX’s Theme Building, was designed by a group of architects led by William Pereira and Charles Luckman that also included Welton Becket and Williams. His Holmby Hills residence for Jay Paley was featured on television for the exterior of the mansion on ABC’s series The Colbys.

Paul Williams in front of the Theme Building

In 1953, Williams received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. He also received honorary doctorates from Howard University, Lincoln University of Missouri, and the Tuskegee Institute. He retired in 1973. Later in life he modestly downplayed the significance of his having been instrumental in shaping a city’s shape and future, referring to architecture as a hobby. He passed away from diabetic complications on 23 January 1980, aged 85.

Paul Williams's home
Paul Williams’s own residence in Lafayette Square (source: James Colin Campbell’s blog)

For further reading, look for:

Paul R. Williams: Classic Hollywood Style by Karen E. Hudson and Kelly Wearstler

Paul R Williams, Architect by Karen E. Hudson

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

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