If you’ve ever marveled at the glamorous mansions on the chic streets of Los Angeles, you’ve probably admired the work of Paul Revere Williams. The first African American to become a certified architect west of the Mississippi, the trailblazing draftsman had a hand in designing many of LA’s most iconic buildings, including parts of Los Angeles International Airport and the Beverly Hills Hotel — to name a few. not to mention the homes of many Hollywood lords—from Frank Sinatra and Carey Grant to Lucille Ball—that earned him the nickname “architect of the stars.”
But what makes Williams so legendary? It’s not because by the end of his five-decade career he had designed more than 3,000 buildings, or that he designed the breathtaking residences of countless celebrities. It’s because he served as a champion and voice for minorities in an era when racial discrimination was still rife in America, paving the way for every other black creative to follow in his footsteps.
“The power of example is strong,” Williams wrote in his 1937 essay for American Magazine, i’m a nigga† “A few decades ago Negroes had no examples within their own race to encourage them. But now that they see men and women of their own color improve so phenomenally, they realize that they – or their children – can do just as much.”
Despite Williams’ best efforts, only about 2% of all architects in the United States identify themselves as black, according to a study published by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. Nevertheless, his contributions to the architectural world and the black community cemented him as one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century.
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Who was Paul Williams?
Paul Revere Williams was born on February 18, 1894 into a middle-class family in Memphis. He was tragically orphaned at age 4, lost both his parents to tuberculosis, and was sent to foster care until he was adopted. After studying at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design and the LA division of the (now defunct) New York Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, he worked as a landscape architect and later earned a degree in engineering from the University of Southern California . He married Della Mae Givens in June 1917 and they had three children (the oldest of whom died at birth).
In 1921, at the age of 27, he became a certified architect and the following year he opened his own office. In 1923, he became the first African American to be initiated into the American Institute of Architects (AIA).
Williams, who served as an architect in the Navy during World War II, was known for his uncanny ability to draw upside down — a skill he taught himself for the benefit of white clients who might feel uncomfortable sitting next to the black architect. For the same reason, he made it a habit to keep his hands behind his back so that no client would ever feel obliged to shake his. Though he was often the victim of blatant racism and marginalization, he never let it deter him or get in the way of his work.
While he writes i’m negro: “I came to realize that I was being judged, not by lack of ability, but by my color. I went through successive stages of bewilderment, unspoken protest, resentment and, finally, reconciliation with the status of my race,” he says. “Eventually, however, as I grew older and thought more clearly, I found in my condition a stimulus for personal achievement and an inspiring challenge. Without a desire to ‘show them’ I developed a strong desire to ‘show myself’ I wanted to justify every ability I had, I wanted to acquire new skills, I wanted to prove that I deserved a place in the world as an individual.
What did he design?
Williams is responsible for the creation of more than 2,000 private residences, including the former hilltop estate on Bowmont Drive, the sprawling home of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in Palm Springs, and the American Colonial-style residence of French restaurateur Rene Faron in Silver Lake, CA. His most prominent public works include the Golden State Mutual Life building in LA, the St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, and the Los Angeles Superior Court. He masterminded the Beverly Hills store of Saks Fifth Avenue and also led the renovation of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel – an extensive renovation that cost $3 million. He similarly oversaw the transformation of the Beverly Hills Hotel, anchored by the addition of the $1.5 million Crescent Wing.
Projects outside of Los Angeles include the refurbishment of numerous buildings and spaces for Howard University (including the halls housing the Male Dormitory, Dentistry School, and Architecture and Engineering School), as well as designing two hotels in Colombia (one in Medellín – the other, in Bogotá).
At one point, Williams helped fellow architect and friendly rival Wallace Neff plan a mega-project in Las Vegas that would feature 1,000 Airform structures — small, sturdy prefab homes that would take little time and money to build. And two Nevada technology companies, Lockheed and Guerdon Industries, later asked him to help develop an auto-alternative transportation system, prompting the architect to design the SkyLift Magi-Cab, a futuristic monorail (Unfortunately, neither project is ever realized).
Either way, Williams single-handedly shaped much of the modern cityscape, leaving an indelible mark on the West Coast. The pioneer’s legacy—who died of diabetes in 1980 at age 85—lives on not only through the structures he built, but also through those who continue to pursue his goal of helping fellow aspiring black creatives and professionals. achieve their goals. to dream.
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