Los Angeles was home to arguably the most successful African-American architect of the 20th century: Paul Revere Williams. Born here in 1894, Williams designed thousands of buildings over his five-decade career, from landmarks like the LAX Theme Building, to glamorous homes for the city’s rich and famous, to civic projects and public housing. He was the first African-American to become a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), in 1923, and the first to become an AIA Fellow in 1957. In late 2016 (36 years after his death) he was awarded the AIA Gold Medal award, the institute’s highest honor for architectural achievement, becoming, once again, the first African-American to do so.
Williams’ success was extraordinary, given the era he lived in. His work is part of the little-known story of African-American architectural achievement in Los Angeles. But a recently published map, produced by the Los Angeles chapter of the AIA, aims to change that.
The map, released in October, highlights over 50 projects in Los Angeles with significant contributions by African-American architects, designers, and engineers — from subway stations to libraries, hospitals, college campuses, places of worship, civic centers, housing, a police station, and a museum. Work by Paul R. Williams is of course featured, along with projects by Robert Kennard (Wilshire/Normandie subway station), Gabrielle Bullock (USC Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute), Roland A. Wiley (Union Station Gateway East Portal), Valery Augustin (La Brea Bakery), Norma Sklarek (Leo Baeck Temple), Anne-Marie Armstrong (Comparte Chocolatier), and others.
Debra Gerod, president of the local AIA chapter and partner at the architectural firm Gruen Associates, decided to produce the map in anticipation of the annual conference of the National Organization of Minority Architects last October in Los Angeles. “It seemed like a great opportunity to do something tangible for the conference, and to support our chapter’s efforts for diversity,” she says.
Gerod approached her co-worker at Gruen Associates, African-American architect Jason E. Morris, with the idea and he was immediately interested. Assisted by high school intern Shaellen Franco, Morris began researching historic preservation websites like the L.A. Conservancy, and individual architecture firm’s websites, as well as cross-checking with city councils and reaching out to architects’ family members. They were also helped greatly by staff from the National Organization of Minority Architects’ Southern California chapter, who tapped its members for their valuable memories of the city’s untold architectural history.
Morris and Franco discovered a fascinating network of architects who had been either mentored or influenced by Paul R. Williams. Gail Kennard, an architect and one of the family members who reached out to help with the map, recalls Williams’ influence on her father, architect Robert Kennard, who was born in Los Angeles in 1920, a generation after Williams. “Knowing that Paul Williams was around and doing an amazing amount of work gave him the courage to go ahead and say ‘Oh, I think I could do this too,’” she says.
She also notes the anomaly of Williams and that the architects he inspired and influenced could have only manifested in Los Angeles. “It was a younger city — the people who came here and became Williams’ clients were not the old established elite,” she explains, mentioning Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball as examples. “A lot of those clients came to L.A. in search of their dreams. They weren’t as stuck in the racial stereotypes that persisted in other places. Not to say that such problems weren’t here too.”
Indeed, one oft-told story about Williams — whose career spanned racist housing covenants, segregation, KKK demonstrations on the beach, and no-blacks-allowed-after-dark “sundown town” areas of Los Angeles — is that he taught himself how to sketch upside-down, so that clients would not have to experience discomfort from sitting next to him at a table.
Morris was surprised that there were fewer African-American architects to include in the project than he had hoped, although it’s well known that the field has notoriously lagged in racial and gender equity amongst its members. Current estimates suggest that African-Americans account for just 2 percent of the nation’s licensed practitioners, and very few hold management positions. Women account for about 25 percent; of those, African-American women represent less than 0.3 percent.
Gerod notes that a solo-genius narrative also contributes to a system of inadequate recognition. “Typically one person gets credit for a project but it’s never just one person,” Gerod says. “One example we discovered is the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. There’s the famous 'Blue Whale'  building there, and everyone knows it was designed by Cesar Pelli. But African-American architect Norma Sklarek had a significant role in its construction. She just wasn’t credited because that’s not how architecture is presented.”
As Gerod and Morris developed the criteria for their map, they decided it should focus on buildings that had “social, cultural and/or historical relevance.” Houses were excluded, due to concerns about privacy.
Morris mentions the Physicians Dormitory at Martin Luther King Jr. General Community Hospital in Watts (1972), designed in part by Jenkins Fleming Architects (Charles E. Fleming and Carey K. Jenkins) as an example of such relevance. “It was a hugely important project at the time, the first hospital in that area,” he says, noting a 1974 article in Ebony magazine titled “Watts Finally Gets A Hospital,” which cited the lack of medical services in the densely populated community as a catalyst for the 1965 Watts rebellion. (The uprising was in response to the police shooting of Leonard Deadwyler, who was speeding through red lights to get his pregnant wife to the nearest hospital, 20 miles away.) The nearby Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, by Drake Dillard, was opened in 1966 to address the same problem and remains the only historically black graduate institution west of the Mississippi.
It was common for many of these architects to focus on areas of Los Angeles that were home to a high percentage of African-Americans, notes Morris. This was probably due to both a desire to improve the lives of minorities by bringing in needed services and gathering spaces, and as a result of being shut out of projects in other neighborhoods. Several buildings on the map are located in Compton, such as its city hall and its civic center (both by Harold L. Williams); the Douglas F. Dollarhide Community Center (by Michael H. Anderson) — named after the city’s first black mayor; the Martin Luther King, Jr. Transit Center (by Elliot S. Barker); and the Compton Community College Learning Resource Center (by Roland A. Wiley). Likewise, the affluent Sugar Hill neighborhood of West Adams is home to the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (the oldest African-American congregation in Los Angeles), which opened in 1965. It was designed by Paul R. Williams, who also built several elegant homes in the neighborhood, including his own.
“It’s important that we highlight the work minority architects are doing so they’re visible to the next generation. That’s how we’re going to get more in the profession and they need to see that the profession welcomes them,” Morris says.
The AIA plans to expand the map and offer tours of the sites in the near future. Gerod is hopeful that other AIA chapters will undertake their own research and create similar maps, to present a fuller story of who designed America’s cities. While the field has a very long way to go before its membership reflects the population it designs for, projects like this can encourage and empower a younger generation.
Franco, who plans to pursue a career in architecture and engineering when she enters college, says she hadn’t heard of any African-American architects prior to her internship with Morris. “My knowledge of Los Angeles architecture did not reach past Frank Gehry or Richard Meier,” she says, “so it was amazing to learn about the African-American architects who contributed just as much to the Los Angeles landscape. I think it was even more empowering to see those achievements and contributions be so instrumental in defining Los Angeles’ history and current culture.”
Top image: 77th Street Police Headquarters by architect Robert Kennard. | Photo: J. Scott Smith