Paul Williams was a brilliant architect


Paul Williams
Date: 
Sun, 1894-02-18

*The birth of Paul Williams in 1894 is marked on this date. He was an African American architect.

Born in Los Angeles, Williams grew up with the city; his parents had migrated west from Tennessee. Orphaned by the age of four, Williams learned early the qualities of fierce determination that would guide his course. He was encouraged to learn from every experience by the strong-willed foster parents who took him in. His education began at Sentour Avenue School on Pico Boulevard, where he was the only "Negro" in his class. Known as the class artist, Williams spent endless hours drawing. His talent caught the eye of a local builder who planted the seed of an architectural career in his mind.

From his student days at the Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles, Williams aspired to be an architect, but was told, "Who ever heard of a Negro architect?" Williams worked his way through the University of California by teaching art until he became a certified architect in 1915. He continued his studies at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design and the Beaux Arts Institute of Design in New York. Following graduation, Williams was the only African-American licensed west of the Mississippi as early as the 1920s.

Williams worked for large architectural firms until he gained sufficient experience in all branches of his profession to open his own office. Williams's firm took on projects both large and small; working in a mixture of architectural styles, much of his firm's work was residential. Williams not only designed mansions for film stars such as Lon Chaney, Lucille Ball, and Tyrone Power, but also planned thousands of small houses in developments throughout California and Nevada.

In the early ’30s he was approached by automaker E.L. Cord, who was looking for someone to design his new house. Williams sized the man up instantly, sensing over the phone that Cord respected punctual achievement. Williams promised preliminary plans within 24 hours of their first meeting. Other planners 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. Before World War II he was known as the architect to the stars, designing Beverly Hills' I., the home of CBS founder William Paley and over 3,000 other buildings in California.

The range of his clientele required him to be a designer of individuality. His clients often wanted very different looks. The striking, 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 wrote about his interest in attractive and comfortable housing for lower-income groups in two publications, Small Homes for Tomorrow and New Homes for Today. Williams served on the Los Angeles City Planning Commission and the city's Municipal Housing Commission. Many of Williams's best-known works were commercial or public. He assisted in the design for the Los Angeles International Airport and the Los Angeles County Courthouse, and was the architect for a number of department stores, hotels, and churches in California and Nevada. Paul Williams died in 1980.

Reference:
The Encyclopedia of African-American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York
ISBN 0-8160-3289-0

To Become an Architect

Person / name: 

Williams, Paul