Friday, October 02, 2015

Paul Revere Williams, architect to the stars

One day in 1898, a few members of the First AME Church in Los Angeles, California, gathered to figure out what to do with two little boys. Their mother had just died and their father had died two years earlier. Like many people in Los Angeles, the family had no nearby relatives, having moved to the area from Memphis, Tennessee.

Charles I. Clarkson, a church elder, and his wife, Emily, agreed to take the younger boy. He was 4, having been born on February 18, 1894. Little did anyone know that he would grow up to be Hollywood's top architect, in part because Hollywood was a bunch of orange groves then. Besides, little black boys could not dream of becoming architects in the 19th century.

But thanks to Paul Revere Williams, they can.

Los Angeles was a town of 100,000 people of various nationalities. About three percent were black, and in elementary school, he was the only black kid. But Missus Clarkson encouraged him, and upon graduation from Polytechnic High School, he studied at the Los Angeles School of Art, the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, and the engineering school at the University of Southern California.

All the while, he worked in architectural firms. Working for Wilbur D. Cook taught Williams landscape architecture. Working for Reginald D. Johnson taught him designing on a grand scale. In Los Angeles, he received opportunities that black kids elsewhere in America did not have. This is not to say he did not face discrimination; this is to say he had an equal opportunity.

He attended the First AME Church every week. And on June 27, 1917, he married Della Mae Givens. Eight years later, their son was born and died on June 30, 1925, but they later had two daughters who survived.

By that time, Williams had won an architectural contest and was on his own as an architect, having become the first black architect certified in the nation, west of the Mississippi.  He had become the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects.

His style elegantly mixed Mediterranean, Spanish Revival, and English Tudor themes. His homes -- he would design more than 2,000 of them -- were graceful and airy, taking full advantage of the Southern California sun.

But the black community in Los Angeles was too small a niche to survive. He dreamed big. He knew he had to be a salesman as well as an architect. He taught himself to draft upside down so that he could work with white clients who were uncomfortable sitting next to him. The Roaring '20s and the creation of Hollywood led to a real estate boom. He established himself by concentrating on small affordable homes in the Hollywood Hills and Mid-Wilshire areas.

As his reputation grew, he moved on to more affluent clients in Flintridge, Windsor Square and Hancock Park.

He was good. Retired financial services magnate Peter Mullin told NPR in 2012 about falling in love with a home Williams designed in Brentwood in 1925. Ingwald Preminger -- brother of actor-director Otto Preminger -- once owned it.

"The first time I saw it, I didn't think I could afford the house, but if I could afford the staircase, I wanted to take it with me!" Mullin said. "Every now and then, I think about leaving. Then I look around ... and I can't. I just love this place."

Indeed, when a Williams home goes on sale, it is now news among Los Angeles real estate insiders.

"Stop the presses, hold the phone, and turn the car around — a real corker has just hit the market," Curbed Los Angeles reported on September 14, 2015. "Known as the Rossetti Residence, the 1928 Spanish Colonial Revival in the Los Feliz Oaks neighborhood was designed by the incomparable Paul R. Williams for Victor Rossetti, a vice president (and later president) of the Farmers and Merchants Bank. Constructed at a cost of $47,000, the two-and-a-half-story house boasts a cavalcade of lavish Roaring Twenties details such as coffered and stenciled ceilings, elaborately carved doors and plaster, ornamental iron work, gorgeous tile, and a dramatic, sweeping staircase."

His clients over the years included Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Frank Sinatra. Bojangles Robinson, Bert Larh, Errol Flynn, Lon Chaney, Tyrone Power (two houses), Barbara Stanwyck, Zasu Pitts, and Danny Thomas. During World War II, Williams designed tract housing for the Defense Department.

His commissions were not limited to houses, however. He designed schools (Woodrow Wilson High School and Marina Del Rey Middle School), churches, stores, and office buildings. At least eight of his buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.

However, he did face discrimination.

"By law, he could not live in some of the places [where he designed homes]. Particularly in Flintridge, where he designed his first home in his own office, the land deed said a black person could not even spend the night," his granddaughter and biographer Karen Hudson told NPR.

Which is why he remained active in his church and in the NAACP, which awarded him its Spingarn Award in 1953. However, Williams looked beyond race.

"If I allow the fact that I am a Negro to checkmate my will to do, now, I will inevitably form the habit of being defeated," Williams once wrote.

Three of his designs had special meaning to him. He designed the Al Jolson tomb in Hillside Memorial Park. While many people denigrate Jolson today for performing in blackface, the truth is he gave many black entertainers a chance when no one else would. As a contemporary, Williams understood the context.

Another design was the new First AME Church building in 1963. The church meant a lot to Williams and made all the difference in the world to him.

The third is the St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis, for which he did not charge money. His only caveat was that no one disclose this arrangement while he was alive, and his friend Danny Thomas kept that promise.

After five decades of designing buildings, Williams retired at age 79 in 1973. He died on January 23, 1980, in his beloved Loss Angeles.

"Virtually everything pertaining to my professional life during those early years was influenced by my need to offset race prejudice, by my effort to force white people to consider me as an individual rather than a member of a race," he wrote in 1937. "I encountered irreconcilables who simply refused to give me a hearing, but on the whole, I have been treated with amazing fairness."


I am publishing the best of these tales, in Kindle and on Amazon. Volume I covering American history from the 16th through the 20th century is here. And Volume II on The Capitalists is available here.

Suggestions are welcome. Email me at


  1. Yet another person who should be a role model for blacks. They should listen to him rather than people like Al Tawana Brawley Crown Heights Riots Freddie's Fashion Mart Arson "them Greek homos" Sharpton and Jesse "Hymietown" Jackson.