Design Spotlight: Paul R. Williams Breaks Great Ground
Updated: Aug 27, 2020
Paul Revere Williams (1894-1980) is one of America's most legendary architects. Even if you don't recognize his name, you are sure to know at least a few of Williams' noteworthy buildings that include the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, L.A. County's Superior Courthouse, MCA's headquarters, Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, Palm Springs Tennis Club and the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building. Over the course of his five decade career, Williams not only blazed a high-design trail across the SoCal landscape, but broke through racial barriers to become the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects (https://www.aia.org/showcases/23066-paul-revere-williams-faia).
I was first introduced to Williams' breathtaking work by Joan Rivers. He had designed the rambling Bel Air Spanish Colonial that she shared with Melissa and Edgar during her Tonight Show years. Joan would talk endlessly about how beautiful this beloved house was and the feature that knocked her out most, it's round dining room - something, I later learned, was classic Paul Williams.
Here are a few highlights from Williams' amazing life and important work that put him in a class by himself:
- Williams lost both parents when he was just four years old. Now an orphan, Williams had the good fortune to gain a foster mother who placed a high value on his education and encouraged him to develop his artistic genius.
- After studying at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design, the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design Atelier and the University of Southern California, where he designed several residential projects as an undergrad, Williams earned his architectural certification from the state of California in 1921, making him the first African-American architect west of the Mississippi.
- Right out of the gate, Williams began winning design competitions. This notoriety not only helped him launch his own firm, but led to his being admitted to the prestigious AIA in 1923, as the organization's first African-American member. As a further testament to his talent and vision Williams was inducted as the AIA's first black fellow in 1957 and was posthumously awarded AIA's 2017 Gold Medal in recognition of his lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture.
- Despite his growing reputation and impressive client list, Williams had to use his savvy and patience to navigate the racial prejudice he faced. A highly-skilled draughtsman, Williams taught himself to render his drawings upside down so that his white clients could view his work from across the table, rather than by sitting next to him.
- Over the course of his career, Williams designed over 3,000 residential, commercial and civic projects, and built a celebrity client list that included a "Who's Who" of Hollywood: Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, Tyrone Power, Mickey Rooney, Lon Chaney, Barbara Stanwyck and Cary Grant. Danny Thomas was a client who became one of Williams' closest friends. As a testament to their relationship, Williams designed the St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis as a gift.
- Working with the Beverly Hills Hotel, in the late 1940's, Williams designed the iconic Polo Lounge, the Fountain Coffee Room, the Crescent Wing and the hotel's signature loopy signage and pink and green color scheme.
- Perhaps Williams' most famous project is the space age Theme Building at LAX. Working with a team of architects and engineers that included William Pereira, Charles Luckman, and Welton Becket, the Theme Building is a blend of aeronautics and pop culture that is one of L.A.'s greatest midcentury masterpieces.