Paul R. Williams, FAIA

Pioneering architect who defined Southern California style

With a portfolio of nearly 3,000 projects and a client list of some of the biggest names in Hollywood history, the work of Paul Revere Williams, FAIA, has come to define the Southern California style. One of architecture’s most enduring pioneers, Williams found success at a time when racial segregation made working as an African American designer nearly impossible. Williams was one of the first black students at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, the first African American AIA member, and the first black architect in the AIA College of Fellows.

 

Born in Los Angeles in 1894, Williams was orphaned at the age of four and raised by a foster mother who encouraged his artistic development. Despite a high school teacher’s attempts to dissuade him—the educator asked why he’d waste his talents butting his “head futilely against the stone wall of prejudice”—Williams unflinchingly followed his interests in architecture. Confident in his abilities, he studied at the University of Southern California before leaving to pursue architecture, developing tactics like rendering his drawings upside down so white clients could view his work from across the table rather than sitting next to him.

After winning a medal at the Los Angeles atelier of New York’s Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, Williams opened his practice in the early 1920s as Southern California real estate boomed. Designing small, affordable houses for new homeowners and revival-style mansions for his more affluent clients, Williams’ business and reputation quickly grew, garnering the attention of clients like Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Barbara Stanwyck, and Barron Hilton. Though well-versed in the historical styles popular in California architecture, Williams nimbly adapted to the rising tide of modernism until his 1973 retirement. With eight of his buildings on National Register of Historic Places, Williams’ body of work includes the Palm Springs Tennis Center (1946) designed with A. Quincy Jones, the space-age LAX Theme Building (1961) designed with William Pereira, and his 1949 renovation of the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel.

Though highly regarded for his early historic-style homes, Williams would embrace the modernism of mid-century California for projects like the LAX Theme Building. (Thomas Hawk/Flickr)