“Today I sketched the preliminary plans for a large country house which will be erected in one of the most beautiful residential districts in the world. . . . Sometimes I have dreamed of living there. I could afford such a home. But this evening . . . I returned to my own small, inexpensive home . . . in a comparatively undesirable section of Los Angeles. Dreams cannot alter facts; I know . . . I must always live in that locality, or in another like it, because . . . I am a Negro.”
If you’ve ever seen the Beverly Hills Hotel, the futuristic tower at LAX, or Frank Sinatra’s famous ‘pushbutton’ Trousdale estate, then you know you’ve seen the work of iconic architect Paul R. Williams, the first African American to become a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The fact that a black architect was responsible for building much of LA’s notable early- and mid-century homes and buildings is ironic. Fortunately for him and for us, his drive and passion for design and concept didn’t deter him as he went on to work for several prestigious and high-powered architectural firms before branching out on his own.
“I labored over the plans for a $15,000 residence as diligently as I do today on the plans for a huge mansion.”
An attendee of my own Alma-mater USC, Mr. Williams was on the very first Los Angeles planning commission and soon after became a very popular architect in the celebrity circle of the time, creating and recreating for people like Frank Sinatra, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Danny Thomas, and Anthony Quinn. For those of you that remember the Hollywood hot-spot Chasen’s on Beverly, that, too was created by Paul Williams. Unfortunately, it was torn down and is now the Bristol Farms at Beverly and Doheny.
Excerpts from Via Magazine and the Encyclopedia of African-American Heritage:
In the early ’30s he was approached by auto manufacturer E.L. Cord, who was looking for someone to design his new house. Williams sized the man up instantly. He wrote later that he could sense, even over the phone, that Cord “worshipped prompt action.” Williams promised preliminary plans within 24 hours of their first meeting. Other architects had requested weeks.
When Williams, without breaking to eat or sleep delivered on schedule, Cord awarded him the commission for a 16-bedroom, 22-bathroom Southern Colonial home in Beverly Hills.
“Probably more than any other house he had designed, the Cord residence fully established Williams as an eminent society architect in Southern California,” the late architectural historian David Gebhard wrote.
Salesmanship, charm, and doggedness were crucial. But Paul Williams also did wonderful work. His architectural style is elusive; Williams produced some 3,000 buildings, but there isn’t necessarily a distinctive Williams stamp.
“It was very important to him to please his clients,” says Karen Hudson, his granddaughter and biographer. And his clients often wanted very different looks. The handsome, rectilinear 28th Street YMCA in South Central L.A., featuring portraits of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, bears no resemblance to the luxurious, terraced Bel Air home complete with a ballroom and a pool so narrow that his rich client, who couldn’t swim, would never feel uncomfortably far from safety. In the Founder’s Church of Religious Science—stocky, domed, and round—there isn’t even a trace of the lovely brick Second Baptist Church he designed in 1924.
“He was very characteristic of the era,” says Ken Breisch, a professor of architecture at the University of Southern California. “A lot of architects were experimenting, trying to find an idiom that was right for the country.” If he settled on one idiom, it was a graceful and streamlined historicism, most apparent in his upscale homes and public buildings.
At mid-century, Paul Williams was the last word in elegant traditionalism. And the Hollywood crowd loved it. “The nouveau riches were looking for legitimacy,” Breisch says. “There was a sense that architecture of the past might give them that. That it might make their money seem like it had been around longer.
But Williams didn’t just churn out straight, anachronistic copies of the Tudor—or Spanish Colonial or Georgian—houses they coveted. If a client wanted columns, Williams supplied columns. But they were slim and stylized. The facades he designed were broad and clean, free of clutter and excess ornament.
The effect of his work was rarely imposing or ostentatious: It was historicism reduced to its essence. “He refined his clients’ aspirations,” says Merry Ovnick, a professor of cultural history at California State University, Northridge. “He was their tutor in good taste. If he’d done exactly what they told him to, they would have ended up with tacky buildings. Williams prevented kitsch.”