Paul Revere Williams. Pioneering Black Architect
Updated: Feb 19, 2021
Although he was practicing architecture in the twenties and thirties and even won an AIA Award of Merit in 1939, Paul R.Williams is not typically considered a modernist. He catered his designs to the wishes of his clients, rather than adhering to the rigid confines of the modernist aesthetic, which meant that his portfolio of work was considered too eclectic for entry into the elite club of Modernism. The architectural style of the building which won the Award of Merit in 1939 has been described as Neo Georgian or even Hollywood Regency. Like much of his work, its architectural style was client driven. Even today, most architects don’t have the luxury of rejecting work that doesn’t align with their personal aesthetic. It certainly wasn’t an option for a black architect in the twenties. But the elegant, modernist home Paul Williams designed in 1952 for himself would suggest that given the opportunity, he preferred the modernist style of architecture.
While he may not have been considered a modernist, Paul Revere Williams was a pioneer in every sense and his career was full of firsts. Born in Los Angeles on February 18, 1894, he was orphaned at a young age and adopted by a family who encouraged his artistic interests. He began studying architecture and design in high school at the Los Angeles School of Art and design. He went on to study architecture and engineering at the University of Southern California, (one of the first architecture schools to allow black students) from 1916-1919. Upon graduating he worked for the Los Angeles Planning Commission in 1920. When he became licensed 1921, he was the first black architect west of the Mississippi to do so. In 1923 he was the first black architect to become a member of the American Institute of Architects. He opened his own office in 1928. In 1957 he was the first black architect to be made a fellow of the AIA.
He is mostly known for the mid-century modern homes that he designed, many of which are now listed on the National Register of Historic places. A prolific architect who was versatile in many styles, it is said that he designed 2000 private homes in the LA area! According to the New Yorker magazine, he once joked that he had built a house on every street in Beverly Hills. Because of this mastery of many architectural styles from Tudor to Georgian, he was popular with celebrities, designing homes for Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Tyrone Power, Cary Grant, Zsa -Zsa Gabor and many more. His elegant, modern designs have become so synonymous with modern Los Angeles residential style that the phrase “in the style of Paul Revere Williams” is a typical description in the Los Angeles real estate market.
In 1943 he published the book “The Small Home of Tomorrow” which features a catalogue of homes in different styles from modern to Neo-Georgian to New England, none of which is larger than 3000 sf and most of which are under 2000sf. The book features floor plans accompanied by gorgeous hand-drawn renderings of the many types. These gorgeous illustrations feature the classic open-plan, and indoor-outdoor spaces that so many of us associate with the Southern California lifestyle, that look just as good today as they did almost eighty years ago. I cannot rave about this book enough. It contains forty different plans with a beautiful accompanying elevation, and each home has a different name. Expect some original cocktails inspired by a few of these beauties such as The Town House, The Riviera, and Contemporary Number Seven to name a few.
His hospitality architecture was equally celebrated. He was responsible for the renovation of the Beverly Hills Hotel from its original mission style architecture into the iconic pink and green mid-century modern building with the famous signature. He transformed what was a frumpy,dated hotel into the most exclusive hot spot hotel in Beverly Hills. This iconic design still looks fabulous. He was also responsible for the renovation of the Beverly Wilshire hotel (of Pretty Woman Fame) in the nineteen forties, Chasen's restaurant, Pirelli's restaurant and many more Hollywood landmarks. There is some confusion as to whether he designed the famous mid-century modern Theme Building at LAX. Although he was part of the airport design team, he was not involved in the design of this particular building, which was designed by William Pereira.
Architect magazine describes Paul Williams as an architect who was “both at the center and at the margins, who gradually developed a set of skills to manage his trips back and forth.” He was well-known for being able to draw upside down for his clients who were sitting opposite him. While some hypothesized that he developed this skill so that his white clients would not have to sit next to him, in1937 he wrote that he used the technique to dazzle clients so that they would overlook his skin color. He walked a constant tight rope, designing homes in neighborhoods where black people were not allowed to spend the night, let alone own property. He had one of the most diverse offices in Los Angeles at the time, hiring white designers to oversee the construction of his projects so that he wouldn’t have to argue with white contractors, but also acting as a mentor to young black architects in his office. He retired in 1973 and died in 1980 at the age of 85.
In the nineties after the fires from the riots after the acquittal of the police officers in the Rodney King brutality trial, it was feared that his entire archive had been lost. This made it hard to prove authorship or for scholars to study his work. This combined with the "bias against eclecticism" by architecture schools and critics allowed his work to be overlooked for many years. Although the eclectic portfolio of Philip Johnson didn't stop him from receiving the AIA gold medal in 1978 or the first Pritzker prize for architecture in 1979. It's more likely that Paul Williams' race combined with his portfolio and lack of connections prevented him from receiving the acclaim of his contemporaries. Luminaries such as Neutra, Gropius (who couldn’t draw at all, let alone upside down) Breuer graced magazine covers, lead architecture schools and were given museum exhibits. Paul R. Williams never received this sort of peer acknowledgement during his lifetime. In 2017, thirty-seven years after his death, he was awarded the American Institute of Architects gold medal. He was the first African American architect to be awarded this honor, which is awarded annually to architects in recognition of their legacy to the field. Now that his archive of work has been found and is accessible at the Getty Center, one would hope that a Paul Williams exhibit would be opening in a museum soon. I'm looking at you LACMA / MoMA. Thirsty for More? Read all about the Pink Palace Gin Fizz here
Sources and Notes 1. Dana Goodyear, Hotel California, New Yorker Magazine 2005
2.Paul R.Williams, "I Am a Negro". American Magazine,1937 3. Paul R. Wiliams, The Small Home of Tomorrow, Murry & Gee Hollywood1945 4. Dreck Spurlock Wilson edit. African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary 1865-1945 Routledge, New York 2004
5. The Paul R. Williams Project: https://www.paulrwilliamsproject.org/
A little Beverly Hills Hotel Style