December 1, 2020

Paul Revere Williams – One of the Most Prominent Architects in American History

Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History was an African American man named Paul Revere Williams who lost his parents at a young age but grew to become one of the most prominent architects in American history, known as the “Architect to the Stars”.


Born on February 18, 1894 in Los Angeles to parents who passed away when he was a child – his father (Chester Stanley Williams) when he was 2 and his mother (Lila Wright) when he was 4 – Paul R. Williams went on to be separated from his older brother Chester Jr. when they were forced to be placed in foster homes.

The foster home where Paul was placed was a home that led by education being of utmost importance, therefore, Paul’s gifts were nurtured. Not only that, his educational structure was good away from home in school despite, in his early years of elementary, he was the only black child in the entire school. It was when he got to high school, a teacher made mention of his race and gave an opinion on why he shouldn’t become an architect.

The reasoning was that he wouldn’t get work because he was an African American, and because of that, white people wouldn’t hire him and Black communities at that time didn’t have the clout for the type of work he would be doing.

Paul Revere Williams didn’t listen. He pushed forward with his architectural pursuits, apprenticing at Los Angeles design firms. This way, not only did he get to know people, but they also go to know him beyond the color of his skin and he was able to prove his skill, even while having to sit opposite whites because many white men didn’t want to sit next to a Black man, career wise especially. That would mean they were on the same level and that didn’t sit well with many white professionals at the time. Paul Williams knew he had to be the best.

It was then in 1915 that he became a certified building contractor, and got married on July 5, 1917 to Della Mae Givens[1]. They went on to have 3 children and live on West 35th Street in Los Angeles, according to 1930 census.

In 1921 became a licensed architect for the state of California, his educational foundation coming from the Los Angeles School of Art and Design and Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, earning his architecture degree at the University of Southern California in 1919. While he was enrolled, he’d already started designing structures as well.

One year later, he opened his very own architectural firm in 1922 while becoming the 1st African American member of the AIA (America Institute of Architects) in 1923 which was founded in 1857 by 13 architects[2].

Paul Revere Williams practice was a success as he built small homes that were affordable for the average working class family while also building for the wealthy, becoming known as the “architect to the stars”[3], having built homes for the following celebrities and more:

  • Anthony Quinn
  • Bert Lahr
  • Frank Sinatra
  • Zsa Zsa Gabor
  • Lucille Ball
  • Danny Thomas
  • Lon Chaney

It had become a “privilege” to have and own a home built by Paul Revere Williams,according to Rosa Greene a financial planner who grew up in a home built by Williams and owned by movie producer David Willis, according to the Los Angeles Times. She is quoted as saying that she “recalls playing hide-and-seek in a secret passageway behind the closet in the master bedroom” and that “many original elements remain, including crank metal windows and a curved brick wall with extruded concrete along the side.[4]

Paul R. Williams’s built homes still attract celebrities today. It is known that Renee Zellweger and Debra Messing both lived in and owned one of the homes built by the architect, and his homes have also attracted the likes of Denzel Washington and Bill Cosby[5].

He built over 3000 commercial buildings/structures/homes in his lifetime and only a small portion are listed below:

  • La Concha Motel (1961)
  • Beverly Sunset Medical Center in LA (1964)
  • St. Jude Hospital in Memphis(1962)
  • Los Angeles Superior Court(1958)
  • 28th Street YMCA (1926)
  • Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills (1939)
  • First Church of Christ, Scientist in Reno, Nevada(1938)
  • First AME Church in Los Angeles (1968)
  • Hillside Memorial Park
  • Hotel Nutibara
  • Guardian Angel Cathedral
  • Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building
  • The Theme Building

Awards and Accolades

  • President Truman spoke at Howard University’s commencement exercises to which Paul Williams received an honorary degree as an “outstanding architect, educator and author of Los Angeles, California.”[6]
  • 1st African American to earn the AIA 2017 Gold Medal (highest honor for an architect)
  • 1st African American elected as Fellow of AIA (FAIA)

Death

On January 23, 1980, Paul R. Williams, FAIA passed away and was buried in Inglewood, California in Inglewood Park Cemetery.

Many of his structures are being preserved today, but just as many are under threat of being demolished, despite how spectacular and beneficial his designs are to American history and future generations who need to know the wonder of architecture and the Black man who defied the odds.


Sources

Los Angeles Conservancy

Paul R. Williams Project; https://www.paulrwilliamsproject.org/

Year: 1930; Census Place: Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California; Page: 5A; Enumeration District: 0272; FHL microfilm: 2339878

[1]Ancestry.com. California, U.S., County Birth, Marriage, and Death Records, 1849-1980 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2017.

[2]American Institute of Architects (AIA)

[3]The News and Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina) 21 Jan 2007, Sun Page 56

[4]The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) 11 Apr 2011, Mon Page 17

[5]The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) 21 Jun 2013, Fri Page 21

[6]Alabama Tribune (Montgomery, Alabama)06 Jun 1952, Fri Page 2