First AME Church designed by Williams, is one of many structures throughout Los Angeles that exist as both building and art.
photo by Troy Tieuel
Respected architect Paul R. Williams, 1894-1980 left a legacy that still stands today.
Paul Revere Williams was one of the premier architects of Los Angeles, during a time of blatant racial discrimination. His school counselors warned him he couldn’t succeed as an architect because “Black people won’t have the money to hire you and White people won’t hire you because you’re Black.” Even in the early years of his career, which began in the 1920s, neither Williams nor his family (wife, Della, and daughters, Marilyn and Norma) were welcome in many of the buildings he designed.
Born in 1894, and orphaned at four, his foster mother taught him early on to abhor negativity. After graduating from Los Angeles Polytechnic high school, Williams attended architecture classes at the University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles School of Art and Design, Beaux-Arts Institute of Design. He became a certified architect in 1915 and opened his own office in 1923, but learned he still had to earn the respect of Whites.
Williams developed a way to gain the interest and confidence of White clients. After listening to their ideas, but recognizing their discomfort dealing with a Black architect, he would gently reject their intended spending amount but would offer his design ideas.
He would quickly sketch a design right before their eyes with his unique approach of sitting across from them and drawing upside-down. Many White clients were not used to having a Black person sit close to them or bend over them, as White architects were able to do. He also learned to produce full preliminary plans in 24 hours instead of the usual week.
Paul R. Williams was an architect and business dynamo to be remembered – and one who left a legacy throughout the southern California landscape.
Some of his most notable designs (3,000 public and residential buildings in all) include the Beverly Hills Hotel, Federal Customs and Office Building in Los Angeles, W.J. Sloan and Haggerty Buildings in Beverly Hills, UCLA’s Botany Building and Franz Hall, the theme restaurant at LAX, Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, the Second Baptist Church of Los Angeles and the downtown L.A. County Court House. He also designed homes in Hancock Park, Pasadena, Beverly Hills, Toluca Lake, Holmby Hills and Bel-Air. He even earned the nickname “architect to the stars,” designing homes for Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, William Holden, Jay Paley, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
However, he consciously decided not to make a big deal over what he did for a living. He and his wife decided to live within the African American community to raise their family. They choose Lafayette Square, where his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other relatives have settled.
Granddaughter Karen Hudson, who lives in her L.A. home designed by her grandfather, said her family didn’t talk much about what Grandpa did. They loved him because he was so gentle and kind. She wrote a book, “Paul R. Williams, Architect: A Legacy of Style,” which was published in 1993. She and her brother, Paul Claude Hudson, a lawyer, president and chief executive of Broadway Federal Bank, are considering how to further memorialize the career of such an important figure in the development of Los Angeles.