Last edited 25 Oct 2021

Paul Revere Williams

"Expensive homes are my business and social housing is my hobby."

--Paul R Williams

This Los Angeles residence, built in 1952, was designed by the African-American architect Paul R Williams for himself and his family.


[edit] Introduction

One of the leading African-American architects in America, Paul R Williams (1894 - 1980) was born in Los Angeles, California. He created homes for numerous American television and movie stars after the Second World War and designed several iconic buildings - both public and commercial - primarily located in California. He also worked with Hilyard Robinson to create Langston Terrace Dwellings in Washington, DC - the first federally funded post-war public housing projects.

Langston Terrace Dwellings in Washington, DC - built between 1935 and 1938 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

[edit] Early life

Both of Williams’ parents died of tuberculosis before Williams reached the age of five. He and his older brother were raised in foster care before eventually being adopted.

As a youngster, he was the only African-American pupil in his school. He began studying architecture before working as a landscape architect and studying architectural engineering. He was warned by teachers to find another career path despite his intelligence, being told, “Your own people can't afford you, and white clients won't hire you." Despite this discouraging career advice, Williams first became certified as a building contractor in 1915 and received his degree in architecture in 1919.


One of his earliest professional roles came in 1920, where he served on the first Los Angeles City Planning Commission. In 1921 he became a certified architect and was hired by one of the top architects in Los Angeles, British-born John C Austin.

Williams established himself as a skilled draftsman and was chief draftsman for the firm, due to his ability to render drawings upside down. He acquired this skill out of necessity, since he was often required to sit across the desk from white clients who may have been reluctant to have him sit next to them.

[edit] The Architect of Hollywood

In 1923, Williams became the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). He also opened his own firm in 1923, at the height of the real estate boom in Southern California.

Williams quickly built his reputation for designing affordable housing along with extravagant homes that were said to exhibit elegant proportions. This attracted people with money and taste, including clients such as Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and other show business icons. Many of his designs included innovative features such as hidden screens as room dividers and patios as additional living space.

Williams once spoke out about the irony of his position as architect to the stars, stating that most of the homes he designed and oversaw the construction of were built on land covered by segregation clauses that would prohibit African Americans from purchasing them.

[edit] Commercial structures

Williams designed the Polo Lounge, the Crescent Wing and the Pink Palace's signature loopy signage at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

His non-residential projects were numerous and significant, many of them becoming familiar Los Angeles landmarks. Some of the more noteworthy include:

Theme Building is located near the Los Angeles International Airport. It was designated by the city as a historic-cultural monument in 1993.

In 1939, he won the AIA Award of Merit and would later go on to become the first African American elected as a Fellow to the AIA in 1957. He was awarded the AIA's Gold Medal in 2017, 37 years after his death.

By the end of his career, Williams had designed more than 2,500 buildings, many of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building is located in the West Adams neighbourhood of Los Angeles, California.

--Heidi Schwartz

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