The following is republished from The Paul R. Williams Project. For an expanded timeline complete with events from material history and society happening concurrent to milestones in the architect's life, refer to the extended version here.
In the course of his five-decade career, Paul Revere Williams, an African American architect born in Los Angeles on February 18, 1894, overcame prejudice and designed thousands of buildings; served on many municipal, state and federal commissions; was active in political and social organizations; and earned the admiration and respect of his peers. In 1957, he was the first African American elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. The path he has forged has served as an inspiration for young architects to this day. Learn more about the man and events that shaped his life in this timeline.
Paul Williams' father, Chester Stanley Williams, works at the original Peabody Hotel at the corner of Main and Monroe as a waiter from 1884 through 1893.
Chester S. Williams, Paul R. Williams' father, opens a confectionery shop with John Brame at 163 Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. A confectionery store sells sweet foods, including candy, cakes, pastries, candy fruits and ice cream.
Today Abe Schwab's, a dry goods store, is located at 163 Beale Street.
That same year Chester Stanley Williams and Lila A. Wright are married on February 25 in Avery Chapel, A.M.E. Church, Memphis.
Paul R. Williams' parents, Chester and Lila, move to Los Angeles with Paul's older brother, Chester Stanley Williams, Jr. His parents open a fruit stand on Olvera Street. (L.A. Times, February 28, 1993) Olvera Street is one of the oldest sections of downtown Los Angeles.
Chester S. Williams is listed in the Los Angeles city directory as a waiter living at 842 Santee Street. Paul R. Williams is born at the Santee Street home on February 18, 1894.
Chester S. Williams, Paul's father, dies in 1896 when Williams is two years old. His mother dies two years later in 1898, leaving Williams and his brother orphans.
The 1898 Los Angeles city directory lists Lila Williams as living at 1405 Silver Street and working as a dressmaker.
When he is six years old, Williams attends Sentous Avenue Grammar School on Pico Boulevard. He writes about this school later in his life and says that he is the only African American student in his class.
In the 1900 U.S. Census, Los Angeles is ranked 36th in the nation based on population. Slightly more than 102,000 residents live in Los Angeles, and of that number, only 3,131 are Negroes.
As a comparison, Neyland Stadium at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, seats 102,000.
The 1910 census data lists Paul R. Williams living with Emily P. Clarkson at 784 E. 15th Street in Los Angeles. Clarkson is later variously described as Williams' foster mother, godmother or guardian.
In a 1970 interview with Maggie Savoy, L.A. Times' Women's Editor, Williams describes Charles Clarkson as his foster father. The First A.M.E. Church dedication stone (Williams is a life-long member of the church) lists "C. I. Clarkson" as a trustee in 1903. This church elder may be the same Clarkson who fosters the orphaned, four-year-old Paul R. Williams.
In 1963, Williams contributes design plans for a new building for the church at 25th and LaSalle.
In June 1912, Paul R. Williams graduates with a class of 174 students from Polytechnic High School, Los Angeles. Polytechnic High School is described in a June 21 Los Angeles Times (1912) article as "the acme of present-day high school educational results."
For the next four years, he pursues a self-directed education studying architecture and improving his skills. As a member of the Los Angeles Architectural Club, he participates in the training and competitions offered through the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects (1913-1916); he studies architecture at the University of Southern California (1916-1919); he works as an apprentice in the offices of local architects and landscape designers.
By 1913, Paul R. Williams is working in the firm of landscape architect/city planner Wilbur D. Cook, Jr. where he gains experience in integrating house and garden design plans. Cook's ideas influence Williams' designs and are evident in the extensive landscaping for the 1926 Baird/Stewart/Garza House.
Cook is known for his landscaping work in Southern California, including the original gardens at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the City Park in Anaheim — now Pearson Park and Irving Gill's Dodge House. Cook recognizes Williams' superior drafting and drawing skills when he assigns him the task of creating the hand-drawn perspective sketches for the park in Anaheim.
After working with Cook, Williams writes that he works for Reginald Davis Johnson from 1914 to 1917. (1942 AIA document) Johnson, a Pasadena architect, is noted for designing luxury homes. His revival residential designs with patios, loggias and courtyards aim to create a "true California style" appropriate to the climate and way of life. (California Southland, Sept. 26, 1926) Williams' work is influenced by these ideas.
In an interview, Williams remembers his early career with Johnson. "The first thing he did was put me on a $100,000 home in Santa Barbara. I'd never been in a house that cost more than $10,000. I couldn't guess how a person could spend that much money. I soon found out." (Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1970)
Williams is certified as a building contractor in 1915 and can build small projects. The California State Board of Architectural Examiners is the agency that maintains these records today, but the agency existed under a different name and mission in 1915. (Wesley Howard Henderson's unpublished research)
William studies architectural engineering at the University of Southern California from 1916 through 1919.
Designs Commercial Building
In the March 30 issue of Los Angeles Builder and Contractor (later known as Southwest Builder and Contractor), Williams is listed as the designer for a two-story commercial building on South Los Angeles Street. Louis M. Blodgett, a successful African American millionaire, is the builder. Paul Williams later builds both of Blodgett's homes in 1922 and 1953.
Registers for the Draft
On June 5, 1917, Williams registers for the U.S. military draft. He self-reports that he is an architectural draftsman working for Reginald Johnson.
Marries and Begins Work for Arthur Kelly
Williams marries Della Mae Givens on June 27, 1917. Della supports his career by "providing him with a comfortable setting in which he could visualize, create and turn his ideas into structures." (Los Angeles Sentinel, August 8, 1996) The Williams become a "power" couple on the social and philanthropic scene of Los Angeles.
He begins working with Arthur Kelly, whose design practice specializes in hotels, residences and public buildings. Williams works for Kelly from 1917 to 1921. (AIA papers) An example of Kelly's work is the dormitory at Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles. Playboy Mansion West, Hugh Hefner's Los Angeles residence, is another of Kelly's designs.
Enters 2nd White Pine Architectural Competition
Williams submits an entry to a national competition sponsored by the influential White Pine Monograph Series to design a house for $12,500. He doesn't win a prize, but his entry is published in an issue of The Independent, one of the first national publications to reproduce his work. Williams' design entry is described in the article as an "unsymmetrical plan ... with picturesque exterior ... Practicability has not been sacrificed to make the design interesting."
White Pine Architectural Competition
Williams wins a Mention in 1918 for his design for a Lakeside Home in a national competition sponsored by the White Pine Series of Architectural Monographs. In 1919, he enters the same competition with plans for a Community Centre Building. This design receives Special Mention by the panel of judges. "... it is an expression of a Community Center Group, has the charm of a New England town, and the Community Building is unmistakably a wooden structure."
Paul R. Williams' simple, compact and "well thought out" entry for the Hollow Tile House Competition is awarded first place by a panel of important regional architects, including John C. Austin. The judges write that Williams' superior renderings, tasteful exterior treatment and lack of "useless ornaments" contribute to the ease and economy of construction. His landscape design fits with Southern California conditions and extends the usable living space.
At 25 years of age, Williams lives at 784 E. 15th in Los Angeles with wife Della and Emily P. Clarkson, who is listed as his godmother in the 1920 U.S. census. Williams describes his occupation as "draftsman at an architect's office." He soon moves to 1271 West 35th Street — a modest home in the black community of South Central Los Angeles where he lives for 30 years.
In 1920, he is appointed to the L.A. City Planning Commission by the 23rd Mayor of Los Angeles (Meredith P. Snyder) and serves on the commission until 1928. The city is changing dramatically with the railroads connecting Los Angeles to the rest of the nation. Land is cheap and abundant. Unlike cities in the East that accommodate growth with taller buildings, Los Angeles can spread out. The L.A. leaders want to plan for the city's future growth with a planning commission.
In January 1921, the Southern Chapter of AIA names the periodical Southwest Builder & Contractor as the official publication for public announcements. The June 1921 issue of Southwest Builder & Contractor lists Paul R. Williams's official certification to practice architecture in California. Williams later becomes a registered architect in the District of Columbia, New York and Tennessee. (AIA Directory 1960)
Also in 1921, Williams begins work in John C. Austin's architectural firm where he works until 1924. Austin's firm is known for large public and commercial projects. The Shrine Civic Auditorium and Hollywood Masonic Temple (1922 Timeline Architecture) are projects in Austin's firm during the years of Williams' employment. Williams describes his position in Austin's office as draftsman.
Early commissions for wealthy clients
Flintridge, named for and developed by Senator Frank Putnam Flint, is a wealthy, segregated suburb near Pasadena. Williams designs scores of homes in this upscale community, including this house for Katherine Flint, the Senator's widow. (It is a smaller version of the couple's original residence.) In later interviews, Williams remembers his professional relationship with the Senator, “I got my start doing better homes ... from him." (Los Angeles Times. October 11, 1970) Eventually, he designs at least ten spec homes in the Flintridge area, and "the development has one of the greatest concentrations of Paul Williams' houses" in the region. (Personal communications, Tim Gregory, noted regional architectural historian, 2013)
The Louis Cass residence in Flintridge is typically described as Williams' first significant residential project for a wealthy white client. His biographies link the two men as high school classmates, but current research does not support this. Williams attended Polytechnic High School and graduated in 1912. Cass was an athletic star at Los Angeles High School, according to local newspaper accounts. After two years at Stanford University, he was named captain of the football team. (Los Angeles Times, November 27, 1911, and August 8, 1913) Cass becomes a successful insurance executive and is one of the founders of the Automobile Club of Southern California. In 1954, Williams designs a ranch house for Cass and his wife Virginia in Temecula, California.
Despite warnings that the African American community is not large or wealthy enough to support an architect, Williams finds work in this growing segment of society. After acquiring his architectural license, he begins to make important connections, including African American businessman Louis M. Blodgett. Blodgett, a Los Angeles entrepreneur with interests in construction, real estate, insurance and the funeral industry, hires the young architect to design a home in 1922 (and later in 1953). In 1924 Williams designs the Second Baptist Church — one of the first major construction projects in the Central Ave area of Los Angeles.
Wins Special Mention in Small House Competition
In 1923, the Community Arts Association of Santa Barbara sponsors one of the earliest small house competitions in the United States. The cost to build the house could not exceed $5,000. Williams receives a "Special Mention" for his meritorious design. The judges note his creative placement of a fireplace on the outside terrace. Eight years later, Williams' entry is published in a catalog available nationwide of small house plans.
Williams joins AIA and opens an office
In 1923, Williams is notified by the Executive Secretary of American Institute of Architects (AIA), the national organization, of his election to membership. The Southern California Chapter of AIA elects Williams as an Associate member on September 30, 1922 — a prerequisite for National AIA membership. He is the first known African American member in AIA.
In the 1962 AIA Directory, Williams writes that he opens Paul R. Williams & Associates in the Stock Exchange Building in downtown Los Angeles. He continues working for John C. Austin until he establishes his own client base.
Monrovia, California Administrative Group
Williams' and Milton W. Nigg's proposal for a group of administrative buildings is selected by the Monrovia Trustees from a number of competing proposals. Their winning rendering illustrates a complex of mission-style buildings with red tile roofs and stucco walls set in a park of mature oak trees covering a half block. (This particular architectural style is a popular choice for public buildings and private residences in Southern California throughout the 1920s.) The Monrovia Administrative Group is one of Williams' earliest successes for a large scale public complex.
The initial phase of the Administrative Group (Fire Department and Hall of Justice/Police Department/Jail buildings) is completed in February 1925. The swimming pool, bathhouse, tennis courts and athletic fields open later in the same year.
Second Baptist Church, Los Angeles
The Second Baptist Church, the first African American Baptist church in Los Angeles, opens its new facility in L.A.'s Central Avenue area. The building is designed by Williams and Norman F. Marsh, the official architect of the Southern Baptist Convention. The church pastor insists that all workmen constructing the church are from African American-owned businesses.
Designs for a Small Brick House Published
In 1925, the American Face Brick Association publishes the sixth edition of their “The Home of Beauty: Designs for a Small Brick House.” The book is a collection of "well rendered" and "meritorious" small house designs the professional group hopes will inspire and educate consumers and contractors to improve the quality of new American single-family homes. They also hope the competition and their publication will encourage a growing middle-class consumer to consider brick when building a residence.
A panel of well-known architects selects the best design ideas from a field of 400 entries submitted for competition by architects and architectural draftsmen from across the country. (The competition is coordinated by the professional journal Architectural Forum, formerly The Brickbuilder and the Committee on Competitions of the American Institute of Architects.) Though Williams' entry for a "simple cottage" is not selected as one of the finalists, his rendering for House, No. 150 is deemed worthy of inclusion in the 1925 publication. The editor's description of the Williams design recommends clients and builders chose a northeast-facing site "thereby providing morning sun in the dining room and a pleasant exposure for the living room and garden."
A note in the book's introduction states that working drawings/specifications and a list of materials are available to anyone for a $25 fee with proof that a "competent builder or contractor" had been secured.
Designs a Public School
It is announced in the Los Angeles Times that Williams is preparing plans for a two-story brick grammar school. This school at 1314 South Dacotah Street opens in 1926.
28th Street YMCA is completed
Williams' design for the 28th Street YMCA in the Central Avenue area of Los Angeles includes Spanish Colonial red clay roof tiles, a row of arched windows on the second-floor and smooth stucco finish. Bas-relief panels with busts of African American heroes, including Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass provide decorative detail in terra cotta with vines and scrolls. In 2011, it was decided by the Coalition for Responsible Community Development and Clifford Beers Housing that the building would receive a badly-needed renovation from Koning Eizenberg Architecture. The building — rechristened as the 28th Street Apartments — now has 49 affordable housing units and a 5-story addition behind the original structure. Williams’ design was preserved as much as possible, but a few elements were added to honor it, such as a figure of Williams himself on the first floor, a nod to the building’s original bas-reliefs of notable African Americans on the fourth-floor windows. The renovation has earned several awards for its environmentally-friendly design and commitment to preserving the original structure.
Home designs in L.A. duplicated elsewhere
In an article in the Los Angeles Times (July 24, 1927), Williams describes instances where visitors to the city see his home designs and want to build a duplicate home. "The Spanish homes built here are usually a wonderful improvement on their prototypes in Europe, a thing that is generally admitted by visitors here from Spain."
Williams is known throughout his professional career as one of the best California practitioners of revival-styling. His residential architecture in the Spanish Colonial style, as reflected in the Baird/Stewart/Garza house, is highly prized by upscale modern homebuyers in Los Angeles.
Continues to receive commissions for Flintridge estates
John Bishop Green hires Williams to design a large weekend home, including the latest "modern" conveniences — electric refrigeration and automatic water heaters.
Los Angeles Times (June 5, 1927) describes this new residence in Flintridge as a project by "Paul Williams, one of Southern California's best-known architects."
Williams' firm is hired in 1927 to expand and improve the Hollywood YMCA. Williams' building opens in 1928. Similar to the 28th Street YMCA, this building is considered a Spanish Colonial Revival with ceramic and terra-cotta interior decorative details. Unlike 28th Street Y, there is only one main entrance. Williams reconsiders the user’s circulation within the building allowing the managers more flexibility and encouraging members to participate in different activities.