Legendary Black architect, Paul Revere Williams, helped build modern Los Angeles

His signature is on 3,000 buildings in Los Angeles and is literally on the Beverly Hills hotel: the sign is in his own handwriting.

Friday, February 26, 2021
Black architect, Paul R. Williams, helped build modern Los Angeles
Williams overcame prejudice to design homes in neighborhoods he could not live in and even learned to draw upside down so he could sit across from his white clients, not next to them.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Architect Paul Revere Williams was born in Los Angeles in 1894 and rose to prominence designing homes and public buildings.

The Los Angeles-born legend helped build and shape modern L.A. as we know it. The archive of nearly six decades of his work, including photos by famed photographer Julius Schulman, has been jointly acquired by the Getty Research Institute and the USC School of Architecture.

"There's a real excitement I think around Paul Williams, particularly in Southern California. I think we just want to leverage that and also help people understand the complexity of Paul Williams," Milton Curry, the dean of the architecture school at USC, said.

Williams was a pioneer in a field with few architects of color, who was resolute being admitted to a school that is now headed by an African American dean.

"Absolutely Paul Williams, and many others, paved the way for me," said Curry.

He says once the thousands of documents, drawings, and photos are digitized, they will be public which will allow us to know more about this lauded architect.

Williams overcame prejudice to design homes in neighborhoods he could not live in and even learned to draw upside down so he could sit across from his white clients, not next to them.

"I think for far too often and for far too long, he's been stereotyped as being the architect of the stars," Curry said. "He did do a lot of houses for Hollywood moguls and stars, but he also did a lot of cultural projects and visionary projects, and also public housing."

Williams' records were nearly lost in the fire that destroyed his bank, Broadway Federal Savings. Blueprints, drawings and more could have burned in 1992, after the verdict in the Rodney King beating, but they were spared.

RELATED | Black artist and activist John Outterbridge leaves lasting legacy

Nicknamed the Griot, renowned artist and activist, John Outterbridge told powerful stories through art.

Karen Hudson, Williams' granddaughter and the family historian, had removed many of the documents to work on a book about her grandfather's legacy, "Paul R. Williams, Architect."

"He was a gentle man with a dream who believed that if he could please his clients, that was his value as an architect," she said.

He was the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects and the first to receive its highest honor Gold Medal, posthumously in 2017. That is when his granddaughter issued a challenge upon accepting it on his behalf: to accept more Black architects.

"He was the first member in 1923. And it was now 2017. And there's still less than 2% African American. And that's true today, less than 2% African American members of the American Institute of Architects. That would make him very unhappy, and so I challenged the AIA to make a difference," she said.

Artist and photographer Janna Ireland focuses on Paul Williams' architectural details in her new book, "Regarding Paul R. Williams: A Photographer's View." That view shows Williams' lines and curves in dramatic black and white.

"When you enter one of his spaces, it seems that nothing is accidental. Everything is the way it is supposed to be, everything is done according to a plan," she said.

Williams' timeless L.A. apartment design was renamed the Gertrude and Harry Kaye building in 2011, when it received City Historic-Cultural Monument designation. Paul Williams was commissioned to design it by Hannah Schwartz in 1947 and the tiny, 12-unit apartment building looks unchanged from its perfect midcentury design.

Ireland's project would deepen her appreciation for Paul Williams.

"He did so much work that was so influential and so important. There's no getting away from that history and it will always be a part of the fabric of Los Angeles."

To learn more about the life and work of Williams, check out the PBS SoCal documentary Hollywood's Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story by going to pbssocal.org/hollywoodsarchitect.