Paul Revere Williams | The Misplaced Architect of LA
One of the greatest contributors to iconic Los Angeles architecture is Paul R. Williams, and I suspect you’ve never heard of him.
At the turn of the 20th century, LA had a population of only 102,000, and the California Dream attracted a mix of ethnicities mixed with supposedly little bigotry and sectarianism. Williams had lost both parents at the age of four and had been taken to a loving nursing home. Los Angeles was lively and a young Paul R. Williams navigated high school at Polytechnic High. However, he found resistance to following his dreams in school and was instructed not to become an architect because the black community could not and would not patronize an architecture firm.
Unimpressed by his teacher’s opinion, Williams became the first African American to be elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. Originally from Los Angeles, Williams designed thousands of buildings and was the first to become a licensed architect. He received the 2017 gold medal from AI, which paid homage to his long-term influence on the theory and practice of architecture.
A bank at the intersection of South Broadway and 45th was destroyed by fire during the riot in LA following the 1992 Rodney King judgment. The Williams Power Plant’s archival legacy was deemed lost as the thought of the 1992 fire that devastated Broadway Federal Savings & Loan was lost. Williams had his business records and records on file with Broadway Federal Savings & Loan for safekeeping, and luckily thousands of original works were safe in an alternate location.
Williams’ archives contain 35,000 architectural plans and 10,000 original drawings to be acquired by The Getty and USC. The Getty Research Institute (GRI) and the USC School of Architecture have announced the joint acquisition of Williams ‘works and will continue Williams’ legacy with Williams ‘granddaughter, Karen Elyse Hudson, chief administrator of Williams’ estate.
20th century LA modernism owes a lot to Williams, and acquiring Williams’ prolific works will help clear up architectural thought and process. Few black architects have worked on the scale and capacity of Williams, and indeed Williams dwarfs many of his white contemporaries. The USC acquisition also brings Williams’ work home when Williams studied architectural engineering at USC and graduated in 1919.
Williams was born in 1894 and returned to Earth in 1980. His career encompassed Spanish revival architecture and mid-century modern forms and shapes. We can refer to the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building on West Adams Blvd. and South Western Ave for a taste of his work. We can better understand Williams’ talent when we learn that he worked on big projects like LAX that ushered in the dawn of the jet age.
Williams ended his career prominently and productively by designing private homes for numerous celebrities: Frank Sinatra, Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, to name a few. Churches, hotels, commercial buildings and the Beverly Hills Hotel logo were manufactured by Williams.
The perceived loss of Williams’ works is allegorically comparable to the loss that Los Angeles has felt from the eradication of black contributions to both the art world and society at large. But similar to the exhumed work of Williams, we as a society can undo the erasure of the black contribution and acknowledge all who contributed to our city as well as feel the slingshots and arrows from it.