Preservation Magazine, Fall 2020

Nine Places that Illustrate the Life of Trailblazing Black Architect Paul R. Williams

The exterior of the La Concha Motel.

photo by: The Vox Agency

The parabolic lobby Paul R. Williams designed for the La Concha Motel now hosts visitors to the Neon Museum in Las Vegas. The museum has received two National Trust grants over the past four years.

During Hollywood’s Golden Age, Paul R. Williams was its “starchitect,” designing glamorous homes for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Frank Sinatra, and other celebrities. However, overt racial discrimination was also a reality throughout much of his five-decade-long career. As a high school student wishing to study architecture, Williams faced what he called “the blank wall of discouragement.” Undeterred, he redoubled his efforts to pursue an education, studying at the University of Southern California (USC) and other institutions. He also worked in the office of landscape architect and urban planner Wilbur D. Cook and was mentored by architect Reginald Johnson.

Certified as a building contractor and trained in Beaux-Arts architecture, Williams was adept at interpreting period styles. He also gained renown for his extraordinary attention to detail and personalized elements. He had to put his white clientele at ease by learning how to draw upside down, so he could sketch a design across the table rather than sitting next to them. In 1923, he launched his own practice, became the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects, and quickly rose to the top of his chosen profession. In addition to his well-known residential work, he also created many distinctive commercial and institutional buildings.

Paul R. Williams.

photo by: Julius Shulman/J. Paul Getty Trust

Paul R. Williams in 1952.

“His brilliance comes through in the sheer diversity and range of his work, but also in his ability to negotiate relationships, and his grit and persistence,” says LeRonn P. Brooks, associate curator at Getty Research Institute, which, together with the USC School of Architecture, recently acquired Williams’ archive. “Williams overcame the legal, social, professional, and institutional barriers that prevented many African Americans from entering the field of architecture. My hope is that scholarship from the archive will flesh out the loud nuances of Williams’ life so we can better understand his contributions to the field and the scale of his imagination.”

A prolific architect, Williams designed more than 3,000 buildings before his death in 1980. His touch is evident at the five-star Beverly Hills Hotel; the cursive lettering on its iconic sign is based on his own handwriting. Hired to revive the hotel’s allure after the Great Depression, Williams infused the spaces with flair. His designs were known for their graceful, curving lines and connection with the outdoors; the Fountain Coffee Room, with its long, swooping counter, is a highlight. Today, the hotel’s Paul Williams Suite, which retains the architect’s original design, gives guests an idea of what it would be like to live in one of his houses. Yet, when he was working on the hotel in the 1940s, he wasn’t allowed to stay overnight or even eat by the pool because of his race.

About a 20-minute drive east of the hotel is the Leistikow House in L.A.’s Windsor Square. Williams designed the Tudor–style home in 1923, and its stepped bank of windows follows the home’s grand staircase. Not far from here is Williams’ own home at the entrance to the semi-gated neighborhood of La Fayette Square. Built in the early 1950s, its modern lines show how his architecture evolved with the times. “It was such an elegant home—there was no wasted space,” says Karen E. Hudson, Williams’ granddaughter, who grew up nearby and later lived in the house for many years. “I think designing timeless homes for families was so important to him in part because he was an orphan.” The recent documentary Hollywood’s Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story, available to stream on PBS SoCal’s website, discusses his life and provides a virtual tour of this residence and other dwellings.

The exterior of Paul R. Williams' house.

photo by: Fotoworks/Benny Chan

Williams’ own International Style house in Los Angeles, now an L.A. Historic-Cultural Monument. Learn more about his work in the new book "Regarding Paul R. Williams: A Photographer’s View by Janna Ireland" (Angel City Press, 2020).

A number of his other L.A. houses have been demolished or renovated beyond recognition, most recently Eva Gabor’s former residence in Holmby Hills. “Even though his homes are coveted, there are people who don’t appreciate them,” says Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy at the Los Angeles Conservancy. “We’d love to see some sort of blanket approach to designating and protecting his work at the city level, because one-offs are not getting the job done. He’s L.A.’s beloved homegrown architect.”

Located on a prominent corner in the West Adams district, the six-story Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building shows another side of the architect’s work. Founded in 1925, the Black-owned company was one of the first in L.A. to offer life insurance to Black people, who were often denied coverage by white-owned companies. In Williams’ handsome Late Moderne design from 1949, the lobby includes two large murals that depict Black history in California. A small plaza, added during a 2015 renovation, commemorates Williams and the company’s history.

The interior of the Founder's Church of Religious Science.

photo by: Architectural Resources Group

Curvilinear interiors, such as those at Founder’s Church of Religious Science in L.A., characterize much of Williams’ work.

Nearby is the strikingly domed Founder’s Church of Religious Science in Koreatown. Williams was a friend of the church’s minister, William Hornaday, who told Williams that he “didn’t want any corners that the devil could hide in.” Completed in 1960, the oval building gathers up the large congregation in a cozy semicircle with a wide, curved balcony. The church received a $50,000 grant from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund earlier this year.

One of Williams’ first major commissions, the 28th Street YMCA in South L.A., dates to 1926. Built as separate facilities during segregation, Black YMCAs served as important cultural and political hubs for the community. Williams embellished the Spanish Colonial Revival complex with bas-relief portraits of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass to inspire young men visiting the center. Since then, an award-winning rehabilitation and expansion by Santa Monica, California, firm Koning Eizenberg Architecture has given it a new life as affordable housing.

Williams’ hospitality projects took him as far as Medellín, Colombia, but closer to home, his 1961 design for the La Concha Motel in Las Vegas is particularly notable. The concrete parabolas of the building’s lobby are reminiscent of Southern California’s Googie–style architecture. Today, the space, which was moved from its original location in 2006, is the visitor center for the Neon Museum.

On the East Coast, Williams helped to modernize the Howard University campus in Washington, D.C. The historically Black university commissioned the joint team of Williams and Hilyard Robinson to design numerous buildings starting in the mid-1930s. Robinson was committed to the International Style, and the structures are spare and angular. But upon closer examination, one sees decorative motifs in the brickwork of buildings like the Ernest Everett Just Hall and the Ira Aldridge Theatre. “They were working in the leading aesthetic of the time, but you can see how they were trying to relate it to African American culture through these specific architectural elements,” says Brad Grant, professor of architecture at Howard.

The exterior of 28th Street YMCA.

photo by: Eric Staudemaier

The Williams-designed 28th Street YMCA in Los Angeles has been converted into affordable housing.

In 2017, Williams was posthumously awarded the AIA Gold Medal, one of the highest honors of his chosen profession; it is still the case today that only 2 percent of the nation’s licensed architects are Black or African American. “My grandfather’s been gone 40 years, and I don’t think he’d be happy to see where we are today,” says Hudson, who is a steward of his legacy. “He used his imagination for creative problem-solving, and our future depends on giving more young people, particularly people of color, the opportunity to use their imagination. I hope his life is an inspiration to others.”

For more on Paul R. Williams watch this presentation by Janna Ireland, author of "Regarding Paul R. Williams."

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Lydia Lee is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area who specializes in architecture and design. Her work has appeared in Architectural Record, Dwell, Metropolis, and The New York Times.

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