Paul Revere Williams was born in 1894 in Los Angeles, California to a working-class family, originally from Memphis, Tennessee. At the age of four, Williams and his brother were orphaned, when, within a period of two years, first Williams’ father passed away, and then his mother. There are many stories surrounding who raised the boys; it was either a relative or close friend of the family. Whoever raised them, they encouraged Paul’s budding art abilities throughout his young life.
As a high schooler, Williams entered Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles. It was there that he took drafting which nurtured his love of art and architecture. That was where the nurturing ended, though. When Williams told his school counselor that he was interested in becoming an architect, his counselor stated, “Whoever heard of a Negro being an architect?” Williams graduated from Polytechnic High School in 1912.
After high school, Williams prepared himself for a life in architecture. He took night classes at the Los Angeles School of Art. He joined an apprentice program at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design. He realized his strength in art and his weakness in construction and earned his building contractor certificate. Williams then entered USC’s fledgling architectural engineering program.
During his schooling, Williams managed to work day jobs in addition to class and homework. As an African American, he was only offered menial jobs at many offices where he applied which he declined to take. He was eventually offered an unpaid internship in the office of William D. Cook, Jr., Landscape Architect. It was an office that Williams knew he would learn from, and he decided to take the job, even though it was unpaid. His hard work paid off when he was eventually hired as an employee at $3 a week.
Williams also honed his skills entering architectural competitions during this time. One of his first competitions was a national student competition to design a civic center for Pasadena. Williams won first prize and $200. Williams went on to enter several other architectural competitions where he received several honorable mentions and reproduction of his competition work in publications. He graduated from USC in 1919, received his architectural license in 1921, started his own practice in 1922, and became the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1923. Quite a stellar rise for Williams.
Williams is fascinating for the abundance of styles of work he designed. His design for the 28th Street YMCA in Los Angeles is considered Spanish Colonial Revival. In 1929, his design of a home for Jack P. Atkin was created in a Tudor Revival style, a design that won Williams a write-up in a 1930 Architectural Digest magazine. In 1939 Williams design two separate commercial buildings for two clients – the Beverly Hills Saks 5th Avenue store in the Moderne style, and the Music Corporation of America (MCA) headquarters also in Beverly Hills, in an English Georgian Revival style which wins Williams an AIA Reward of Merit. He even dabbled in Modular Steel Housing with Lea Steel Homes in the mid-1930s.
While Williams continued his rise in the architectural world, licensing himself in New York, Washington D.C., and his parent’s home state of Tennessee, he was never able to forget about his race. Contractors would come to him with proposals for buildings and try to walk away as soon as they saw that Williams was black. In 1937 Williams penned his famous, “I am a Negro” essay for The American Magazine.
"I am an architect.
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, a district of roomy estates, entrancing vistas, and stately mansions. Sometimes I have dreamed of living there. I could afford such a home.
But this evening, leaving my office, I returned to my own small, inexpensive, home in an unrestricted, comparatively undesirable section of Los Angeles, [because]…
I am a Negro.”
The essay continues and was reprinted again in Ebony Magazine in 1986 when Williams died. Despite this lament, Williams believed in man’s humanity to man and said, “White Americans, in spite of every prejudice, are essentially fair-minded people who cannot refuse to respect courage and honest effort. They will, therefore, give me an opportunity to prove my worth as an individual.” And they did. Besides his commercial work, Williams designed many expensive, private residences for the owners of those commercial properties throughout the 1930s.
During wartime, Williams is nominated to the draft board. He also closes his office and moves to Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona designing housing units and a well-loved (and well-used) recreation center for the soldiers. The Chicago Bee newspaper calls it, “…the finest Army Recreational Center (barring none) in the United States.” Williams also works with the Navy designing the Roosevelt Naval Base in San Marino, California. His contributions to the war effort were celebrated in a set of illustrations highlighting famous African Americans. After the war, Williams returns to Los Angeles, reopens his practice of around 60 employees, and continues on. However, inspired by the veterans he has met during his war-time work, particularly the poorer African American veterans, he publishes two books about affordable small housing. (“The Small Home of Tomorrow (1945) and “New Homes for Today” (1946).) It’s a philosophy he continues to refine throughout his architectural career.
One of his earlier modernist structures (1947) is for the Palm Springs Tennis Club. Fellow architect A. Quincy Jones had been an employee of Williams but branched out on his own. The two joined forces on the tennis club, creating a modernist clubhouse which blends in its desert surrounds.
In 1949 Williams celebrates the opening of the Golden State Life Insurance Company headquarters, a late Moderne / early modernist design by Williams. One of the largest African American owned life insurance companies, the building was lauded with a week-long celebration. You can see the mix of Moderne and Modern in the building’s lobby. The building now serves as offices for a non-profit serving the developmentally disabled. In 2015 a reflective park and monument to Williams were erected on the site.
One of Williams’ first true mid-century residences was a home he designed for himself and his family. Located at 1690 South Victoria Avenue in the Lafayette Square neighborhood of Los Angeles, the neighborhood originally had covenants against blacks and Jews settling in the area until a supreme court ruling in 1948. This 1952 home for Williams and his family is a four-bedroom, 4,400 square foot house seems modest in comparison to the mansions Williams was designing for famous Los Angelenos at the time, but it was just right for Williams and his family. The home is now a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.
Another mid-century masterpiece by Williams was a small, pied-à-terre that Williams designed for Frank Sinatra in the Trousdale Estates area of Los Angeles. Mid-century with Asian influences of screen walls and black lacquer. Sinatra himself gave a “private” tour of the residence on the Edward R. Murrow Person to Person interview show. Sinatra was a gadget man – and asked Williams to enhance his home with as many new-fangled electronics as possible. This included a hidden hi-fi sound system with ceiling speakers and walls filled with acoustic gravel to give the sound the best quality possible. Williams was a bit of a gadget man himself and obliged Sinatra with as many special toys as he could while designing sleek cabinetry to hide all of the electronics. It was Williams’ own daughter, Norma Williams Harvey, who was the interior designer for the house. The home stood mostly unscathed by time until it was torn down in 2006 for a generic Mediterranean-style mansion.
Not only a residential designer, Williams also applied his design skills to many civic and religious buildings as well. One of these was the 1958 Church of Religious Science. The church is ovoid in shape with a large dome creating a large sanctuary seating 1050 on the ground floor with an additional 313 in the balcony. As we mentioned prior, Williams was also enamored by gadgets and this facility was one of the first to utilize closed-circuit television. If the 1,363 seats in the main sanctuary weren’t enough, the service could be broadcast to additional seats in the chapel in the lower level of the church. The church is surrounded on the main 6th Street side by ornate breeze block walls that shelter an intimate garden between the church and the street. Two separate breeze blocks patterns are used in the design of the wall, both a cruciform shape and a very mid-century rectangular pattern.
In 1963 Williams contributed the design for his own church, the First AME Church of Los Angeles. The church itself is the oldest African-American founded church in Los Angeles and was the church where his foster family was long-time members. It was also the church in which Williams married his wife, Della. His services for the design of the new building were pro-bono to the church. The project exuded California mid-century, captured in the geometric beams which support the sanctuary roof along with the zig-zag roof of the entry portico into the church.
The mid-century style for which Williams is most famous is his work with a team of architects on the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport. There is actually some disagreement on whether or not Williams contributed to the design, but his name has stuck by the building throughout history. There is no doubt, though, that Williams’ firm took part in the bigger renovation of the entire airport. There is also mention of a very futuristic Esso station on the LAX property designed by Williams. There appear to be no remaining photographs of the project, but the luscious description is as follows: “The Esso gasoline station at LAX, designed by Williams and other noted Los Angeles architectural firms, is cited by the American Institute of Steel Construction for the imaginative use of steel. The canopy over the gas station has a high-rib steel decking radiating from its center. ‘Under the canopy are smaller free-standing circular structures framed with steel decking.’ (New York Times, June 3, 1962)”. It certainly makes you wish that photographs were easily accessible to this structure!
Williams designed many other worthy mid-century structures throughout the country, although here we are concentrating on California. Two of note are in Las Vegas; the Guardian Angel Cathedral and the La Concha Motel, now the Neon Sign Museum. The cathedral is a striking A-frame design made even more futuristic by the addition of a space-age four-sided spire topped by a cross. The La Concha motel design is a paraboloid concrete structure in the Googie style. It was slated for demolition in 2004. A wing of rooms was demolished in 2003, but with much effort, funding and love, the paraboloid lobby has gained a second life as the lobby of the Neon Museum.
Williams won countless awards and accolades throughout his life and broke through the racial barrier many times over. He died in 1980, still resided in his beloved Los Angeles. One last racial controversy marked Williams’ legacy after his death. His lifetime of work of professional records, photographs, and other documentation was housed in one of Williams’ former projects; a renovation of a former Woolworth building into the Broadway Federal Savings in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. During the 1992 riots in Los Angeles spurred by the Rodney King verdict, the building and all of its contents, including Williams’ work was burned.
You might see why I chose Williams to highlight as the architect to represent California. There were many others from which to choose – Eichler, Neutra, Cliff May, John Lautner – the possibilities are almost endless. However, it is amazing to me, looking back on the lifetime of work, what a remarkable abundance of architecture Williams designed in his lifetime. From early revival styles to space-age and Googie styles, Williams always kept learning and incorporating the new into his repertoire. His building type was also vast – from economical housing to mansions of the rich and famous to department stores, churches, airport – the expanse of both his residential and commercial works is monumental. In this day and age, this type of extensive work is still incredibly unusual and was even more so during Williams’ tenure. He was an amazing man and continues to exude a lasting legacy on all of architecture.