In honor of Black History Month, join us each day from February 10th to the 19th as we celebrate Black Angelenos who have influenced culture, social justice, and progress in Los Angeles and, in some instances, the nation.
Today we celebrate Paul Williams:
Black Los Angeles may have a distinct, instantly recognizable architecture, but it has no master builder. Close your eyes and think of the architecture of black L.A. and what you'll most likely see is an afterimage of recent 'hood flick mise-en-scène: collectively art-directed expanses of flat road, heat radiating from concrete and asphalt, craftsman houses reduced to pill box repetition, blank blue sky stabbed by a single palm tree. This overwriting of black L.A. by Hollywood takes on another layer of complexity when you consider that Los Angeles does indeed have a singular black architect, a man responsible for over 2000 private homes, so many of them designed for the bold faced names of the local dream factory that this man was once known as "The Architect to the Stars."
Born in Los Angeles in 1894, Paul Revere Williams lived a story that could have made any screenwriter proud had it been visual fiction. His father died when he was two, his mother when he was four. The only black child at his elementary school, he was urged away from his first love - architecture (Williams knew from the very first what he was meant to be) - on the well-intentioned (but deeply racist) logic that there would never be enough demand for his services among local Negroes. He persisted, studying at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design in what was then Westlake Park, before going on to USC's School of Engineering. (It was during this period Williams purportedly taught himself to render drawings upside down so that he could sit far across from clients who might not want to sit right next to a black man.) He married relatively young (why waste precious time looking for what he already had?) and, that done, became the first certified African American architect west of the Mississippi in 1921. He also became the first black member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1923.
He designed enough iconic Los Angeles buildings, to well, fill a city: the MCA Building, the Ambassador Hotel (renovations), the Beverly Wilshire Hotel (renovations), contributions to the design of the "Theme" building at LAX, Hollywood palaces for Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Lon Chaney, Sr., Tyrone Power, Danny Thomas, Barbara Stanwyck, and a host of other once-bright, but now faded stars. Away from the bright lights he also contributed to buildings across the country, working as an architect for the Navy (notch another name for the "military as race-neutral meritocracy" meme) and the U.S. government, for whom he helped design the first federally-funded public housing projects, Langston Terrace in Washington, D.C. and Pueblo del Rio in Los Angeles.
Stone, of course, has a tendency to outlive the soft meat of both architect and the client, and so it is that the world in which Williams achieved these unlikely things largely no longer exists. This is not just a matter of outliving racism, but of also outliving segregation's parallel world of black glory and glamour. He lived and designed homes for many black notables in West Adams, back when it was the seat of Los Angeles' colored society. He married at the First AME Church in Los Angeles and his wife, Della Mae Givens, founded the Wilfandel Club, the oldest African American social and philanthropic club in Los Angeles. Harvard apparently did not come calling, but Howard, Lincoln and Tuskeegee all awarded him honorary doctorates, while Joseph Cox's Great Black Men of Masonry records that Williams achieved the Thirty-Third Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, Prince Hall Affiliation. There is today, among a certain cadre of bourgie black folks, a fad for the ownership of a Paul Williams home. How better to display one's taste and wealth than pluck one of Williams' buildings from relative obscurity, goes the thinking? But how much more exhilarating - how much stranger - it must have been to build it all from scratch.
In 1957 became first black elected to the distinguished AIA College of Fellows
In 1961 as a joint venture he designed the LAX Theme Building
Perfected the skill of rendering drawings "upside down" so that his clients (who may have been uncomfortable sitting next to a black architect) could see the drawings rendered right side up across the table from them
In 1963 designed the current location of the First AME Church in Los Angeles (founded in 1872 by Bridget Mason) following a 1972 fire which destroyed the original building
With Hilyard Robinson, he co-designed Langston Terrace, one of the first federally financed public housing projects in the U.S. and located in Washington, D.C., built between 1935 and 1938 by the Public Works Administration.
Notable clients include Frank Sinatra, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Lucille Ball and Julie London to name a few.
As we continue celebrating Black History Month with daily portraits of iconic Angelenos, check back for more features on other pioneering individuals and make sure to share this history with your friends and family. Click here for more portraits.
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- Green Justice
- I Am Los Angeles