Architecture is an art form that shapes the world we live in, its impact often felt for generations. One such influential figure in the profession is Paul Revere Williams, an architect whose groundbreaking work and remarkable life has left an indelible mark on American architecture.
Born in 1894 to a mixed-race family in Los Angeles, California, Williams was orphaned at the age of four but was raised by a devoted foster mother who encouraged his talent. As a high school student, he decided he wanted to pursue a career in architecture, and despite the racial barriers of the era, he defied all odds and became an architect and trailblazer in his profession:
Williams was the first African American to become a certified architect west of the Mississippi, in 1923 the American Institute of Architects’ first Black member, in 1957 the first Black member to be inducted into the AIA’s College of Fellows, and in 2017, he was posthumously bestowed with the AIA's 2017 Gold Medal, the organization’s highest honor, making him the first Black recipient of this prestigious award.
His portfolio more than 3,000 buildings contains many of L.A.’s important private and public structures, including parts of Los Angeles International Airport and the Beverly Hills Hotel, not to mention the residences of many wealthy clients and Hollywood A-listers, from Carey Grant, Barbara Stanwyck or Frank Sinatra to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. It encompasses a wide range of architectural styles, including Mid-Century Modern, Mediterranean Revival, and Streamline Moderne.
Williams was renowned for his versatility, adaptability, and ability to cater to the diverse needs of his clients, seamlessly blending modernist principles with traditional aesthetics, ensuring that each structure was a reflection of their unique personalities.
But Williams' popularity extended beyond residential projects. He was involved in numerous commercial ventures, designing iconic buildings that became symbols of their respective communities. One such example is the Theme Building at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Completed in 1961, this futuristic structure, with its sweeping arches and innovative design, captured the spirit of progress and innovation that Los Angeles was known for. The Theme Building became a symbol of Los Angeles and a testament to Williams' visionary approach; it is now designated as a Historical building.
1. Theme Building at LAX, Los Angeles, CA. Architects Paul Williams and Welton Becket, built 1957–1961. Exterior and interior designated as a historic-cultural monument; photo via Thomas Hawk
2. Pool at Paley house, Beverly Hills, CA, 1934; photo by Paul R. Williams Collection
3. La Concha motel (now Neon museum), Las Vegas, NV, built 1961; photo by Neon museum
4. Robert Norman Williams house, Ontario, CA; 1947; photo by Cameron Carothers
5. Crescent Wing, Beverly Hills hotel, Los Angeles, CA, 1940s. Signage is from Williams’ own handwriting; photo via Wikimedia
6. Lahr house, Beverly Hills, CA, 1941; photo unknown
7. Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz house, Palm Springs, CA, 1954; photo by Julius Shulman?
8. Golden State Mutual Life Insurance, Los Angeles, CA, 1949; restoration by Steinberg architects; photo by Paul Turang
9. Paul Williams house, Los Angeles, CA, 1952; photo unknown
10. Living room original condition, Paul Williams house, Los Angeles, CA, 1952; photo unknown
11. Living room, Paul Williams house, Los Angeles, CA, 1952; photo by Mel Melcon/LA Times
12. Williams drawing by Charles H. Alston, via wikimedia
In addition to his residential and commercial projects, Williams was involved in numerous community and civic initiatives. He championed public housing projects and designed schools, churches, and medical facilities that focused on creating inclusive spaces for all. His MCA Building, later renamed the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building, exemplified his commitment to social progress and the empowerment of marginalized communities.
Paul Revere Williams' legacy extends far beyond his architectural achievements. He shattered racial barriers in the profession during an era when racial discrimination was still rampant in America, paving the way for future generations of diverse architects, leaving an indelible mark on the profession.
His designs continue to inspire architects and shape the architectural landscape today. His ability to seamlessly blend modern and traditional elements, coupled with his focus on creating spaces that are functional and visually stunning, serves as a timeless testament to his genius.
"Paul Revere Williams, AIA's first black architect" by Tobias Kaiser, CC BY-NC-ND
Tobias Kaiser works as an independent real estate broker and consultant in Florida since 1990. Always putting his clients' interest first, he specialises in modern Florida homes and architecture, as well as net leased investments.