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Portrait of Paul R. Williams (1952) (photo by Julius Shulman, Gelatin Silver Print, © J. Paul Getty Trust, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)

LOS ANGELES — To Southern California, Paul Revere Williams is one of the most prolific Black American architects of all time. But to Williams’s granddaughter, Karen Elyse Hudson, growing up, he was also a really good grandfather.

“To others he is often referred to as ‘the architect to the stars,’ to his grandchildren, he was simply the best grandfather ever,” Hudson recalled her relationship with Williams in a June 30 press release announcing that the Williams archive had been jointly acquired by the University of Southern California (USC) School of Architecture and the Getty Research Institute (GRI).

A third-generation Angeleno and author who also doubles as the family historian, Hudson is responsible for meticulously managing her great-grandfather’s archive, which spans over 35,000 plans, 10,000 original drawings, blueprints, hand-colored renderings, photographs, correspondence, and other materials.

During his nearly six-decade career, Williams built homes for entertainers and celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, and Cary Grant, earning him international recognition and the nickname, “the architect to the stars.”

“My journey has been one of awe and encouragement. Never once did I believe my work was my gift to him, for it has been, and will always be, his gift to us,” Hudson said.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz House, Palm Springs, Paul R. Williams architect, built 1954-55 (photo 1955) (photo by Julius Shulman, Gelatin Silver Print, © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)

Moving forward, USC and GRI will be co-owners of the most significant and intact archive of an African American architect working in Southern California during the early and mid-20th century. The two institutions will oversee the conservation and digitization of the archive’s materials, which are said to be in “excellent condition.”

Born at 842 Santee Street in Los Angeles in 1894, Williams was orphaned at the age of four. From 1916 to 1919, he studied architectural engineering at USC and started apprenticing. While still in school, Williams began working under architects Arthur Kelly (known for designing Playboy Mansion West) and later John C. Austin (who designed LA’s City Hall and Shrine Auditorium) before launching his own firm.

Today, Williams is widely considered the GOAT of Black architecture in Southern California due in part to his role in designing some of the city’s pillars of modern architecture, such as his redesign of the Beverly Hills Hotel (Williams built the Crescent Wing and is responsible for the color scheme, script logo, as well as the redesign of the Polo Lounge and Fountain Coffee Room). He also designed the interior of Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills and the relocated First A.M.E Church, the oldest and largest African American church at the time.

Beverly Hills Hotel Addition, Beverly Hills, Paul R. Williams architect, built 1949-50 (photo by Julius Shulman, Gelatin Silver Print, © J. Paul Getty Trust, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)

Williams’s influence resonates the strongest in Los Angeles County, but he also worked on a significant number of national and international projects, including the Hotel Nutibara in Medellín, Colombia and the first federally sponsored public housing project in the country, Langston Terrace in Washington, DC.

A master of Late Moderne design — a style of architecture synonymous with silver exteriors, reflective glass, curves, and corporate architecture — Williams’s talent lied in his ability to work in various styles. By contrast, most builders in the mid-20th century focused on one style of architecture. 

El Mirador Hotel, Palm Springs, Paul. R. Williams architect, built 1952-53 (photo 1953) (photo by Julius Shulman,  1953, Gelatin Silver Print, © J. Paul Getty Trust, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)
El Mirador Hotel, Palm Springs, Paul. R. Williams architect, built 1952-53 (photo 1953) (photo by Julius Shulman,  1953, Gelatin Silver Print, © J. Paul Getty Trust, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)

Known primarily for his use of long horizontal lines and curves, over the course of his career, Williams built almost 2,000 private homes in Los Angeles alone and worked on over 3,000 projects, including celebrity homes, housing projects, municipal buildings, banks, and churches. His work played a significant role in defining the topography of his home city.

“The Los Angeles cityscape is a testament to Paul R. Williams’s lasting impact on Southern California and modern architecture in general,” Maristella Casciato, senior curator of architecture at GRI, said in the press release from USC and GRI.

Nellie Hirsch House, 10800 Ambazac Way, Bel Air, Paul R. Williams architect, built 1933–34 (photo 1982)(photo by Julius Shulman, Gelatin Silver Print, © J. Paul Getty Trust, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)

Williams built private homes and worked on fancy hotels, but he also built affordable housing and gave back to his community. He worked on several notable projects that resonated strongly with the African American community, including the largest African American-owned insurance company in the western United States, the oldest Black congregation in Los Angeles, and the Pueblo del Rio neighborhood in Long Beach, which was designed to house African American defense industry workers in 1940.

Williams enjoyed a long and successful career in an industry that catered to whiteness. He often built homes for people in neighborhoods that he couldn’t legally live in. In order to find success in an unwelcoming industry, Williams learned how to draw upside down in front of clients and he kept his hands clasped behind his back when touring construction sites. He was always acutely aware of the role segregation played in his work.

Langston Terrace Dwellings in Washington, DC (image via Wikimedia Commons)

“During a period of de jure segregation, Paul R. Williams mastered architecture, a public art form, and was as prolific as he was persistent. His legacy is therefore as much about the character of the man himself as it is the scale, variety, and ambitions within a professional practice wed to realizations of perpetual excellence,” LeRonn P. Brooks, associate curator for modern and contemporary collections at the Getty Research Institute, added in the press release.

Despite the odds, Williams became the first African American member of the American Institute of Architect (AIA) and, later, its first African American Gold Medalist, the AIA’s highest annual honor.

For the Getty Research Institute (GRI), the Williams archive will be a cornerstone for its African American Art History Initiative (AAAHI), which launched in 2018. The Williams archive will join the archives of Welton Becket, Pierre Koenig, John Lautner, Ray Kappe, Frank Israel, William Krisel, and Frank Gehry.

At USC, the Williams Archive Initiative will be a central element of the new USC center for architecture and city design. The university hopes that the archive will help contemporary scholars and designers with research. “[Williams’s] career and life invite new histories to be written by the countless scholars who will have unprecedented access to this tremendously important archive,” associate curator Brooks said.

According to Hudson, her grandfather would welcome the collaboration. “Paul Williams led by example and instilled in his children and grandchildren the importance of excellence, an attention to detail, and above all, family,” she said. “The collaboration of two such esteemed institutions, the University of Southern California (USC) and Getty Research Institute (GRI), to preserve and further his legacy, would make our grandfather extremely proud.” 

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Lexis-Olivier Ray

Lexis-Olivier Ray is a multitalented content creator and journalist focusing his lens and pen on social topics impacting the Southern California area.