One of the biggest contributors to iconic Los Angeles architecture is Paul R. Williams, and I’m guessing you’ve never heard of him.
At the turn of the 20th century, LA held a mere population of 102,000 people, and the California dream drew a mélange of ethnicities which blended together with allegedly little bigotry and sectarianism. Williams had lost both parents by the age of four and had been placed into a loving foster home. Los Angeles was vibrant and a young Paul R. Williams was navigating High School at Polytechnic High. He found resistance to following his dreams in school, however, and was told not to become an architect because the Black community could not and would not patronize an architect’s firm.
Unperturbed by his teacher’s opinions, Williams went on to become the first African American to be elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. Williams designed thousands of buildings, is a Los Angeles native and the first to become a licensed architect, and was awarded the AI’s 2017 Gold Medal, which paid homage to his long-lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture.
During the LA turmoil following the 1992 verdict of Rodney King’s trial, a bank at the crossroads of South Broadway and 45th was razed by fire. Thought lost to the ’92 blaze that ravaged the Broadway Federal Savings & Loan, the archival legacy of the powerhouse Williams was understood to be lost. Williams had placed his business records and documentation at the Broadway Federal Savings & Loan for safekeeping, and fortunately, thousands of original works lay safe at an alternative locale.
Williams’ archive contains 35,000 architectural plans and 10,000 original drawings, which are staged to be acquired by The Getty and USC. Getty Research Institute (GRI) and USC’s School of Architecture have announced the joint acquisition of Williams’ works and will perpetuate Williams’ legacy alongside Karen Elyse Hudson, the principal steward of Williams’ estate, and granddaughter to Williams.
LA Modernism in the 20th Century owes much to Williams, and the acquisition of Williams’ prolific works will help enlighten architectural thinking and process. Few Black architects have operated at the scale and capacity of Williams, and indeed Williams dwarfs many of his white contemporaries. The USC acquisition likewise brings Williams’ work home, as Williams studied architectural engineering at USC, and graduated in 1919.
Born in 1894 and returned to earth in 1980, Williams’ career spanned Spanish Revival architecture and Mid-Century Modern shapes and forms. We can reference the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building at West Adams Blvd. and South Western Ave for a taste of his work. We can more robustly understand Williams’ talent as we learn he collaborated on major projects such as LAX, which ushered in nascent stages of the jet age.
Prominent and prolific, Williams capped his career by designing private homes for numerous celebrities: Frank Sinatra, Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball, and Desi Arnaz just to name several. Churches, hotels, commercial buildings, and the Beverly Hills Hotel logo were all crafted at the hand of Williams.
The perceived loss of Williams’ work is allegorically akin to the loss Los Angeles has felt due to erasures of Black contributions to both the art world and society at large. But, similar to the exhumed work of Williams, we too as a society can reverse erasures of Black contribution and acknowledge all who have contributed to our city, as well as felt the slings and arrows of it.