The Remarkable Life and Career of Architect Paul Williams

Paul Revere Williams was an African American Architect whose elegant classic designs feel as modern and glamorous today as they did decades ago. 

Born in Downtown Los Angeles in 1894, Paul Williams designed some of the most iconic buildings in Los Angeles including one of my personal favorites, The Beverly Hills Hotel (originally designed by Architect Elmer Grey) redesigned by Paul Williams in the 40's with the iconic pink and green color scheme, glamorous script signage, the addition of bungalows and The Polo Lounge. 

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I was lucky enough to catch a retrospective on Paul Williams work at USC several years ago.  

Like most big achievers, Paul Williams overcame a lot of adversity in his life. Orphaned at the age of 4 after his parents died of Tuberculosis, Paul was raised by family friend, Emily P. Clarkson whom his parents knew from the First A.M.E. Church.  Emily was very supportive of Paul's love of drawing and art.  

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Paul graduated from Polytech High School (then located in Downtown LA) in 1912.  He continued his studies in Architecture while entering competitions offered through the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects.  In an interview with Ebony Magazine, Paul Williams recounted how one of his high school counselors tried to dissuade him from becoming an architect saying "Whoever heard of a Negro being an architect?"

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Model of the Dodge House in West Hollywood 1913, Architect Irving Gill, Landscape Architect Wilbur D. Cook Jr.

In 1913, Paul landed a coveted apprenticeship with landscape architect Wilbur D. Cook.  Cook was best known for creating the Master Plan for the city of Beverly Hills and was highly regarded for his elegant landscaping.  Cook learned from the best having previously worked for Frederick Olmstead, inarguably the most famous landscape architect of all time.  Olmstead designed NYC's Central Park and the grounds for Chicago's World Fair in 1893.  It's during his time apprenticing with Wilbur Cook Paul Williams develops his own sense of style and learns the importance of integrating landscape with architecture.

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Residence in Santa Barbara designed by Reginald Davis Johnson  

Paul Williams went on to apprentice with Architect Reginald Davis Johnson known for the luxury estates he designed throughout Southern California.  It's with Reginald Johnson Paul works on a variety of architectural styles like Spanish, Spanish Colonial Revival, New England, Art Deco and Tudor, all popular architectural styles in Southern California in the early 1900's.  

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In 1917, Paul Williams registered for the draft self-reporting as an architectural draftsman.  Illustrator Charles Alston, an artist in the Harlem Renaissance (1920-1930) created a series of illustrations for the War Department with famous African Americans.  On a side note, one of the great pleasures in researching Paul Williams was discovering the work of Charles Alston.  

In 1923 Paul Williams opens his own practice and it wasn't long before he landed a series of commissions for luxury homes throughout the Los Angeles area.  1923 is also the year Williams becomes the first African American to become a member of the AIA (Architects Institute of America)

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The Degnan Residence in La Canada designed by Paul Williams in 1927 is a stunning example of Spanish Colonial Revival Architecture.  

Another favorite Paul Williams design of mine is the Bruce and Lulu Blackburn residence in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles designed in 1927.  

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Happy to report The Blackburn Residence was declared Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument #913

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As Paul Williams' popularity rose among the wealthy patrons of Los Angeles, he began to receive commissions for prominent commercial projects which included Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building on Wilshire Blvd., Palm Springs Tennis Club and The Beverly Wilshire Hotel and The Shrine Auditorium.

 

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Frank Sinatra Residence in Trousdale Estates, designed by Paul R. Williams, 1956

Hollywood came knocking.  In the 50's Paul Williams became the go to architect to celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Lucy & Dezi Arnaz, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck & Danny Thomas.  Frank Sinatra purchased an empty lot in the Trousdale Estates and entrusted Paul Williams to have free reign over the design.  Williams enlisted the services of his daughter, Norma Williams Harvey who selected the decor for the estate done in a Japanese Mid-Century design.  

Popular TV show host Edward R. Murrow filmed a segment with Frank Sinatra giving a tour of his newly built house in 1956 - 

In an interview in 1970 with Maggie Savoy, Williams reminisced about the house he designed for Frank Sinatra "Frank Sinatra wanted a bedroom; press a button and the doors open to the patio.  Press another button and the bed rolls out into the patio".  Frank Sinatra was a bachelor at the time.  I love the sign above the buzzer to his driveway.  Kind of says it all. 

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In the late 1950's Paul Williams along with Pereira & Luckman (Architects of the original LACMA now being demolished) and Welton Becket (Capitol Records building)  were hired to redesign LAX.

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The renovation was a major undertaking that took 1 and 1/2 years to complete at a cost of 50 million dollars.  Paul Williams once reminisced he had to learn how to sketch upside down so his white clients didn't have to sit next to him.  Incredible!

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Williams designed his personal residence in 1951 in the Lafayette Square Historic District in Los Angeles and lived there until his death in 1980.  Williams grand-daughter, Karen Hudson is the author of 3 books about the architect and lived in the house until she sold it in 2017.  As noted in the Paul R. Williams Project, "the homes clean lines, smooth outer skin, soft interior architectural curves and space for extensive indoor/outdoor living illustrated his personal design taste in California Living."

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 Williams signature grand entrance and sweeping staircase.  The house is now designated Los Angeles Cultural Historical Monument No. 170

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Paul Revere Williams designed 3,000 buildings throughout his career.  He was posthumously awarded A.I.A. Gold Medal in 2017.  The Gold Medal is the Architectural Institute of America's highest honor recognizing individuals whose work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture.  

In a 1937 Essay for Ebony Magazine titled "I am a Negro" Williams shared his philosophy "Virtually everything pertaining to my professional life during those early years was influenced by my need to offset race prejudice, by my effort to force white people to consider me as an individual rather than a member of a race."

Sources for this post:  AIA, Curbed, KCET, Paul Revere Williams Project

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