Paul Revere Williams earned his moniker “architect of the stars” during a career in which his designs dotted in Southern California’s wealthiest enclaves, leaving a silver screen impact in the decades that coincided with Hollywood’s golden age.. He created homes for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball and helped establish elegant municipal, federal, and commercial developments as far as Washington, DC. In two best-selling books, he advocated affordable housing for a new generation of homeowners.
But in those same decades, racial discrimination and prejudice were still so persistent that many enamored of Williams’ achievements were unaware that he was black, and his life and legacy, at the mercy of separate professional and social worlds, had long been obscured. That’s no longer the case, as the Hollywood elite from Hancock Park to Beverly Hills search for documented mansions in the array of revival styles he used. Architectural historians draw on the research and writing of Karen E. Hudson, his granddaughter and archivist, which first led to its rediscovery in the early 1990s. And aficionados of his signature design vocabulary enhance their coffee tables with “Regarding Paul R. Williams: A Photographer’s View,” a collection of striking black and white images by Los Angeles photographer Janna Ireland, published in 2020.
But even during his lifetime, a substantial, layered body of Williams’ work largely slipped through the cracks of celebrity real estate and construction reporting. (Williams died in 1980.) It represents a gap in the recognition his prolific career is finally getting. Now, in a new series of photos, Ireland has reconnected with Williams to help describe how the urbane, matinee-idol-handsome Los Angeles architect from the early 1930s through the 1960s left his mark on the rapidly changing Western world. Nevada’s landscape and the resort, gambling, and tourism industries that take root there. The photographs of Ireland, commissioned by the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, will be on display there until December 2 in the exhibition “Janna Ireland on the Architectural Legacy of Paul Revere Williams in Nevada”, which will then be moved to the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas travels .
“To see Williams working in Nevada in new ways was such a revelation,” Ireland said, “but also, as Los Angeles clients bought real estate there, to see the connections in his architecture between Southern California and Nevada. I hope this inspires people to keep more of his work.” She spoke in a Zoom interview from her studio in the yard of the 1913 California Craftsman home, where she lives with her husband and two sons.
Daonne Huff, director of public programs and community engagement at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and a participant in a symposium at the Reno Museum, said the exhibition has enabled Ireland, 37, to build on her bond with an architect. from another era and his work. “For both, it’s about structures like portraits,” Huff said, “about the layers of lives that lived there.”
To cement that affinity, Ireland said, she has adhered to black and white photography and natural light, “so all those extra details of colors and fabrics, wallpaper, interior design and multiple light sources are removed for a focus on the details of the architecture. “
But her sense of belonging goes deeper. Born in Los Angeles in 1894 and orphaned at age 4, Williams found a foster family in his parents’ church friends that nurtured his drive and confidence to resist the racism around him, and supported his ambition to become an architect. The high school instructor to whom he confided his ambitions did not. “Who ever heard of a Negro becoming an architect?” Williams told Ebony Magazine in a 1947 profile.
Ireland had a similar experience as a black high school student in Philadelphia when she said she wanted to study photography at New York University. “They told me NYU really wasn’t for someone from my background,” Ireland said. In 2007, she graduated with a BA in photography from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and in 2013, she received her MFA from the Department of Art at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Ireland heard about Williams when she was approached in 2016 by Barbara Bestor, executive director of the Julius Shulman Institute in Los Angeles, who planned a show about Williams. “I wanted to start a discourse on Williams’s work that was not based on models and blueprints, but on photography,” Bestor said. The artist James Welling, an Irish teacher at UCLA, mentioned her interest in house portraits. Curated by Bestor, “There is Only One Paul R. Williams: A Portrait by Janna Ireland” opened at the Woodbury University Hollywood gallery on December 9, 2017.
Driving a sleek Cord car manufactured by the auto company founded by Errett Lobban (“EL”) Cord, a large residential customer in Beverly Hills, Williams was summoned to Nevada in 1934 by Luella Garvey, a wealthy Pasadena doyenne, like many, to the state as a tax haven, and to Reno for a quick divorce from a second husband. To announce her fame in an exclusive new neighborhood, Williams designed a genteel mansion in a Westernized Colonial Revival style. Despite the restraint, the Irish photos show Williams flourishing as much as the swirl of a grand entry staircase or imposing mullioned windows inside and out, the New Orleans-style ironwork he favored as a reflection of his racial heritage.
In 1938 Williams defeated fierce competition to design Reno’s First Church of Christ, Scientist. It was not successfully repurposed as a theater in 1998 and stands empty as the city of Reno decides its fate. In her starkly tender photographs, Ireland transforms Williams’ tough pews into stand-ins for long-dead parishioners, while the facade’s peeling sun-window observes the shame of time.
Before World War II commissioned Williams as an architect to the Navy, it deposited him about 24 miles outside the Las Vegas city limits, where Basic Magnesium Inc. produced metal used in airplanes, bullets and bombs. Williams was commissioned to design Carver Park, segregated housing for BMI’s 3,000 black workers. “They were recruited mainly from Arkansas and Louisiana,” said Carmen Beals, the show’s curator, and they found they hadn’t left the Jim Crow attitude behind.
The wall text in front of the exhibition entrance is from an article Williams wrote for American Magazine in 1937. “Today I have outlined preliminary plans for a large country house to be built in one of the most beautiful residential areas in the world,” it reads in part. “Sometimes I have dreamed of living there. I could afford a house like that.” But at the end of the paragraph, Williams dismissed the possibility, “because…I’m a Negro.”
He had already taught himself to draw and write upside down so that white customers wouldn’t worry about tall, immaculately dressed Williams sitting next to them, and to stand or walk with his hands casually clasped behind his back, so they could avoid a handshake.
Prevented from developing an individual style for white clients as a black architect, Williams continued to hone a range, and in 1941 he delivered a cowboy estate to EL Cord in Nevada’s remote Fish Lake Valley. Cord, said David Walker, executive director of the Nevada Museum of Art, “was confident the Japanese would take out Southern California,” and Williams’ ranch — including the ubiquitous Circle L brand he designed — had been bolstered to wait. on the war. Ireland traveled there, photographing rooms full of gnarled pines and built-in glass fronts left to a lone gun and sparse rows of books.
Almost as isolated was the Lovelock Inn, a motel that Cord opened in 1949 for his brother-in-law, a sullied Louisiana politician. The painful incongruity was not lost on Ireland when she stumbled across the road on US 40 to the distant spot. Ireland emphasized the geometry of the two-bed motel and the flat porch that extended to an arid vanishing point.
So where did Williams stay as he traveled between states, or wanted to eat out, when generally every establishment except those mentioned in “The Negro Motorist Green Book” was banned? “That’s the biggest mystery of all,” said Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Libraries. “The most important thing is how he dealt with racism in his day.”
As Karen Hudson wrote in an email, “he rarely stayed for long periods in cities where he was not welcome to stay…. In other cities, the client often found him shelter in the homes of their friends or family.” Another black visitor, the Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, described Reno in 1935 as “a very prejudiced city with no public places where Negroes could eat…was established before gambling.”
As the photos of Ireland show, Williams’ last Reno project, the 1937 El Reno Apartments, were basically two-bedroom houses prefabricated from steel. Williams was a very shrewd businessman and served as a business consultant, his name featured prominently in the advertisements. The metal is made to look like painted wood, with cheery bay windows and miniaturized versions of classic Williams ironwork on the outside, and space-saving ingenuity inside.
The continued flow of blacks to Las Vegas after the war also generated Nevada’s first middle-class housing development for African Americans, Williams’ Berkley Square of 1954.
In keeping with Williams’ credo of affordable housing for even the most modest of young families, the exteriors bear penetrating remnants of Williams’ architectural input.
The Las Vegas Williams is said to have experienced another proposition in the 1960s, a glamorous place where white movie stars rubbed elbows with white mobsters while black performers in the hotels and casinos of the Strip weren’t allowed to dress or swim in the pools there.
Williams responded with an inventive approach to Googie architecture, the 1961 La Concha Motel, a design so lavish that the former lobby now offers a winged welcome to the popular Neon Museum. But Ireland said her favorite Williams building in Nevada is the Guardian Angel Shrine (1964), built for Morris “Moe” Dalitz, a Jewish casino owner and Bugsy Siegel employee who wanted a church for his Catholic employees. It was renamed Guardian Angel Cathedral in 1977, with a certain show business flair. In the photos of Ireland, every detail seems to point to the sky in a gesture of promise, optimism or hope.
“I wanted to celebrate Williams’ different architecture in Nevada,” Ireland said, “so that someone would see one of those buildings and say, ‘I want one too.'”