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During an age when racial prejudice ran strong, Paul Revere Williams (born February 18, 1894 in Los Angeles) overcame barriers and became a favored architect in Southern California. In 1923, he was the first Black architect to become a member of the national professional organization, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and he rose to become a Fellow in 1957 (FAIA). In 2017, Williams posthumously received the Institute's highest honor, the AIA Gold Medal.
Paul Williams was orphaned when he was four - his brother and parents died of tuberculosis - but his artistic talents were supported and encouraged by his new foster family. His non-Black public school teachers, however, gave little encouragement to Williams, citing the perceived difficulties of a "Negro" pursuing an architecture career within a largely white community. Nevertheless, he enrolled in the local engineering school and graduated in 1919 from the University of Southern California. He went on to New York City to become one of the first Black students to attend the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, an architectural experience modeled after the curriculum of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Williams was ambitious and self-assured after such rigorous study and especially after winning an important architecture competition when he was only 25. He opened his own practice back in LA when he was 28.
As a Black American, Paul Williams faced many social and economic barriers. Williams' clients were mostly white. "In the moment that they met me and discovered they were dealing with a Negro, I could see many of them freeze," he wrote in American Magazine. "My success during those first few years was founded largely upon my willingness - anxiety would be a better word - to accept commissions which were rejected as too small by other, more favored, architects."
Much of what we know about Williams' process is from this 1937 essay, "I Am a Negro." He took to heart what he had been told about clients - that Black people couldn't afford architects and white people wouldn't hire a Black architect. So, he developed tricks to be less intrusive, almost subservient to potential white clients - most famously, he elegantly sketched upside-down to showcase his ideas to white clients while maintaining a physical distance. Perhaps it is this understanding of "space" that made this architect so successful. He used both physical and psychological tactics - he would consciously stand in a non-threatening posture with both hands behind his back while explaining that he normally doesn't take on projects in the lower price ranges, but he'd be glad to offer some ideas. Williams most famously has said "If I allow the fact that I am a Negro to checkmate my will to do, now, I will inevitably form the habit of being defeated."
Being Black in a segregated industry led Paul Williams to develop salesmanship and become politically active. He joined the Los Angeles Planning Commission and he became the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). In 1957, he was the first Black architect elected to the prestigious AIA College of Fellows (FAIA).
Paul Williams collaborated with other architects on many of his larger, public projects, most famously for his role in designing the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Some of Williams' projects were with architect A. Quincy Jones, who worked with Williams from 1939 to 1940. Although the iconic, futuristic LAX structure is high profile architecture, Williams designed thousands of private homes in Southern California - many of the most beautiful houses in Hollywood are sold an resold to the ongoing star-making machine surrounding Hollywood. Williams designed homes for Lucille Ball, Bert Lahr, and Frank Sinatra, and he became close friends with Danny Thomas, for whom he did pro bono work for St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
While there is no one distinctive "look" to his buildings, Paul Williams became known for designs that were stylized and elegant. The architect borrowed ideas from the past without using excessive ornamentation. He could make a Tudor Revival mansion look like a manor house on the outside and a cozy bungalow on the inside.
Paul Revere Williams retired in 1973 and died in the city of his birth on January 23, 1980 in Los Angeles, California. Although few documents from his practice have survived, architectural scholars have compiled extensive records of Paul Williams' life and works, including contracts, letters from clients, plans, and materials related to specific projects. Photographs, bibliographies, and other resources are posted online by the Paul R. Williams Project, coordinated by AIA Memphis, the University of Memphis, and other organizations.
In the 1940s, Williams published two small books of plans that have remained in print. Also, author Karen E. Hudson, the granddaughter of the architect, has been documenting Williams' life and work.
- The Small Home of Tomorrow by Paul R. Williams
- New Homes for Today by Paul R. Williams
- Paul R. Williams Architect: a legacy of style by Karen Hudson, Rizzoli, 2000
- The Will and the Way: Paul R. Williams, Architect by Karen Hudson, Rizzoli, 1994 (for ages 8-12)
- Paul R. Williams: Classic Hollywood Style by Karen Hudson, Rizzoli, 2012
Early African-American Members of the AIA (PDF); 2017 AIA Gold Medal, AIA.org; Architect of Hope, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital; Williams the Conqueror by Shashank Bengali, University of Southern California Public Relations, 2/01/04