Issue: Spring 2004
Williams the Conqueror
He was an orphaned black boy from downtown with a talent for sketching. How architect Paul Williams shaped his own destiny – along with the Los Angeles cityscape – is a modern-day saga of conquest.
By Shashank Bengali
A pair of real-estate developers announced plans in August to knock down Perino’s, once the swankiest restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard, and replace it with upscale apartments. Ardent preservationists sniffed, but in a city that has a famously casual relationship with its own history, the demise of an old restaurant was hardly shocking. Besides, Perino’s had been closed for nearly 20 years, its oval dining room and graying chandeliers used in recent years only for movie and television shoots.
Still, it was an occasion to wax nostalgic for the place with the signature sheet-metal awning, the place where Bugsy Siegel and Cole Porter had dined in plush red-leather booths and Sinatra had freestyled on the Steinway in the bar. Opened in 1932, Perino’s was “The Place” for high society and haute cuisine in L.A.’s postwar heyday. Owner Alex Perino was an attentive host – and fussy. Afraid that scents from the kitchen might taint his martinis, Perino had fresh ice delivered daily directly to the bar.
Everything about Perino’s – the stucco exterior in shades of pink and
peach, the black-and-white-tiled entryway lined with potted palms –
epitomized a golden era in the city’s history. But perhaps the most
extraordinary thing about Perino’s was the man who designed it.
Photo Courtesy of Karen Hudson
Photo Courtesy of Karen Hudson
Paul Revere Williams ’19 was an African-American architect at a time when such a combination wasn’t considered possible. He had been told as a teenager that “a Negro” couldn’t be an architect; he proved otherwise, though it meant riding to job sites in segregated train cars and perfecting the skill of upside-down drawing (so he could sit across the table from clients, rather than lean over them, lest his proximity make them uncomfortable).
“He was completely undaunted by racism,” says the architect’s granddaughter, Karen Hudson, who has authored two books on his career and life.
Against all odds, Williams designed hundreds of important public buildings and palatial playgrounds for the elite, in the process becoming one of Southern California’s signature 20th-century architects.
“He was the Jackie Robinson of architecture,” says Beverly Hills realtor Crosby Doe, an admirer who has sold a number of Williams homes to wealthy clients in recent years.
“He went a long way toward defining what style was for Los Angeles.”
In a career spanning 50 years and some 3,000 projects, Williams perfected a style at once elegant and relaxed, one that helped shape the Southland when it was still emerging from the orange groves. Los Angeles International Airport, the Ambassador and renovated Beverly Hills hotels, the Saks Fifth Avenue department store – all bear the Williams stamp. As the Los Angeles Times observed recently, “If you have a picture in your mind of Southern California in the 1950s and early 1960s, you are quite likely picturing a building created by Paul Williams.”
He was a pioneer in every sense. The first black member of the American Institute of Architects and its first black Fellow, he served on state and presidential commissions and traveled the world designing structures. Closer to home, he was a statesman for the African-American community and built some of its most enduring landmarks.
He is perhaps best known, however, as the “architect to the stars.” His portfolio of celebrity clients included Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Tyrone Power, Lon Chaney, Bert Lahr and Zsa Zsa Gabor. To this day, Hollywood royalty live in Williams-designed homes in Beverly Hills, Bel Air, San Marino and other communities that, to blacks of his day, seemed remote as the moon.
“Here was this man designing mansions in places he couldn’t dream of living,” says Hudson, family historian and keeper of the Williams archives, containing thousands of sketches, plans and writings.
This month, 110 years after he was born and 24 years after his passing, USC’s Black Alumni Association opens the first exhibit devoted entirely to Williams. Timed to coincide with Black History Month, the show at the Helen Topping Fine Arts and Architecture Library, which runs through March, paints a vivid picture of his spirit while presenting a chronology of his work, especially his legacy to Los Angeles.
In 1963, Williams wrote an essay for Ebony magazine titled “If I Were Young Today”; in it he recounted the reaction of a Polytechnic High School guidance counselor upon discovering his career goal. “He stared at me with as much astonishment as he would have had I proposed a rocket flight to Mars,” Williams wrote. “Whoever heard of a Negro being an architect?” the counselor demanded.
Williams, who penned two books and several essays, would refer to this episode, this “blank discouragement,” as the turning point of his life. It prompted him to make an important decision: “If I allow the fact that I am a Negro to checkmate my will to do now, I will inevitably form the habit of being defeated,” he later wrote. And if “prejudice is ever to be overcome it must be through the efforts of individual Negroes to rise above the average cultural level of their kind. Therefore, I owe it to myself and to my people to accept this challenge.”
Young Paul had one advantage: He was blessed, despite early tragedy, with a nurturing childhood. His birth parents had both died of tuberculosis before he turned 5, and he was separated from his only relative, older brother Chester Jr., when they were placed in different foster homes. But Paul had the good fortune to be raised by Mrs. Clarkson, a supportive and strong-willed woman who recognized his artist’s talent and encouraged him to explore every cranny of their downtown neighborhood, which offered no shortage of architectural models. His gift caught the eye of his foster mother’s friend, a builder who first got Paul thinking about a career in architecture.
Paul was the only black kid in his class at Sentuous Avenue elementary school, but it wasn’t race that set him apart. Known as the class artist, he rarely went anywhere without his sketchbooks and pencils. His childhood may have been poor, but it was cosmopolitan. He learned German from the immigrant kids, picked up Chinese from the man who ran the laundry.
Ignoring naysayers like that guidance counselor, Williams took night classes at the Los Angeles School of Art after graduating from Polytechnic in 1912. He joined the local atelier of the New York-based Beaux Arts Institute of Design, an apprenticeship-style program founded by disciples of the famous French architecture school of the same name. At the Beaux Arts he was introduced to European principles of design.
Meanwhile Williams had to earn a living. He hunted for work the way traveling salesmen used to hawk their wares: He pulled out the phone book, compiled a list of all the city’s architects in geographical order, and visited them one by one. Dressed sharply – throughout his life, Williams was unfailingly elegant, suit jacket buttoned, moustache precision-trimmed – he went door-to-door peddling his services. He received three job offers for office-boy positions, but the most prominent firm, the place he really wanted to be, the firm of landscape architect Wilbur D. Cook Jr., offered no salary. Though he desperately needed the money, Williams bit the bullet for the good of his career and took the unpaid job. He quickly won Cook’s admiration, however, and soon came on payroll at $3 a week.
Office-boy by day, he continued to study by night. In 1914, at age 20, Williams took first prize in a national student competition to design a civic center for Pasadena. Los Angeles architectural historian David Gebhard notes that the plan emphasized open space – a characteristic of the architect’s work that would endure for decades – by setting the center buildings back from the street corner and placing a circle of trees near the intersection. Williams won $200 for that design, and, more importantly, a strengthened belief in his own abilities. The next couple of years would bring more awards from student design competitions in Chicago and New York, including the prestigious Beaux Arts Medal.
But his talent was still raw. While his designs showed creativity, Williams had little understanding of bricks and mortar. One employer told him, point-blank, that drawing was just a fraction of what an architect had to be good at. So a year after being certified as an architect, the Beaux Arts graduate decided he needed to learn the mathematics and physics underlying his dreamy sketches. In 1916 he began a three-year program in architectural engineering at USC. There were only seven other students in the program; the university was still years away from having a full-fledged architecture school.
It was the practical choice. “USC was the school in the neighborhood,” Hudson says, “and the school that accepted black faces.” (Williams received USC’s Alumni Merit Award in 1966.)
While pursuing his studies, Williams worked for the major residential architect Reginald D. Johnson, who gave the young architect his first glimpse of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Williams had never before been in a house that cost more than $10,000. “When my employer gave me the assignment for a $150,000 home, I was dumbfounded,” he would later write. “I couldn’t imagine how you could spend so much on a home….”
The experience taught him a lesson in restraint. “A room should have a single focal point regardless of how much money is spent on it,” he later wrote. “A magnificent collection of furnishings, antiques, and so forth, if arranged insensitively, can look like a very expensive junkshop.”
His engineering background proved useful when Williams went to work for John C. Austin. As a promising young associate in the firm, Williams assisted in preparing construction drawings for major public buildings, including the Shrine Auditorium and the First Methodist Church.
Williams was still months away from earning his state license when, in 1921, he got a boost from a former Polytechnic High classmate, Louis Cass. One of the original underwriters of the Automobile Club of Southern California, Cass, who was white, wanted to build a home in the Flintridge hills. He gave his old friend the $90,000 contract, encouraging Williams to use the commission to start up his own firm.
Williams didn’t know that a host of other substantial residential commissions would soon come his way. But the Cass house gave him the security – and cash – he needed to strike out on his own. He chose a space in the Stock Exchange Building downtown and hung a sign out front: “Paul Williams & Associates.” He was 28 years old.
In the early years of Williams’ career, prospective home builders would visit his office – drawn to him either by reputation or by chance – without realizing he was black.
“The moment … they met me and discovered they were dealing with a Negro, I could see many of them freeze. Their interest in discussing plans waned instantly and their one remaining concern was to discover a convenient exit without hurting my feelings,” he wrote in a 1937 essay for American Magazine titled “I Am a Negro.”
But Williams believed firmly that people were intrinsically tolerant: “White Americans, in spite of every prejudice, are essentially fair-minded people who cannot refuse to respect courage and honest effort. They will, therefore, give me an opportunity to prove my worth as an individual.” Because of his talents, he was soon proven right.
As the prosperous 1920s roared on and the home-building boom in Southern California continued, Williams scored a number of residential commissions – nearly all from wealthy, or at least upper-middle-class, white clients. In 1929, he won the contract to design his biggest home yet – a $500,000 hilltop estate in Pasadena for horse breeder Jack P. Atkin. (Last May, the house, in practically its original condition, was listed for sale at $8 million.)
But the 1930s and ’40s brought the commercial projects Williams would be remembered for. In 1937 he designed the Beverly Hills headquarters of the Music Corporation of America, a stately colonial-style structure that somehow achieves the comfort of a house – a particular Williams talent – while providing an easy visual transition between commercial and residential areas. Hudson says the building was her grandfather’s “favorite commercial work. He thought it was important to work in a place where you felt comfortable.”
Then came the interior of Saks Fifth Avenue, which by contrast blended the modern style of low ceilings and smooth curves with the quiet elegance upscale shoppers would expect.
From 1947 to 1951, Williams worked on the extensive restoration of the Beverly Hills Hotel, an erstwhile hotspot for the glitterati that had faded from glory under a succession of owners. Williams contributed the designs for a revamped Polo Lounge, the Fountain Coffee Shop, and – as legend has it – the hotel’s signage itself, the smart script familiar to anyone who has ever cruised down Sunset Boulevard. The coffee shop, especially, showcased Williams’ classic Southern California sensibility, gracefully commingling inside and outside with bright colors (green booths, pink tablecloths, matching pink vases) and floor-to-ceiling windows.
These structures are still celebrated today, and their enduring quality reflects the architect’s gift for adapting to trends. In an essay titled “Paul R. Williams and the Los Angeles Scene,” critic Gebhard noted that Williams “was remarkably sensitive to changes in architectural fashion. He endeavored to retain a foothold in the past while transforming it with a sense of contemporaneity.”
On the subject, Williams himself once wrote: “When asked what was my theory of design – that I did so many contemporary buildings yet I shunned the exotic approach – my answer was, conservative designs stay in style longer and are a better investment.”
The late ’40s also brought a series of important international commissions, including two art-deco hotels and a country club in Columbia’s BogotÓ and MedellÝn.
Williams easily could have made a career out of designing big-dollar projects for big-time clients, but his social conscience was stronger than that. Within a few years of opening his office, in fact, he had designed two important buildings in the African-American community: the Second Baptist Church and the 28th Street YMCA, L.A.’s first for “colored boys and young men,” in whose fašade he had carved the images of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass. He was also the first African American to design a major public building in the city, a unit of Los Angeles General Hospital that opened in 1945.
Two years later, he not only designed and built but served as vice president and director of Broadway Federal Savings and Loan. The oldest S&L for African Americans west of the Mississippi, Broadway Federal made home loans to hundreds of black GIs turned away by other lending institutions in the years after World War II.
As his practice blossomed – by mid-century he was employing about 60 people in an office on Wilshire Boulevard – Williams gave his attention to the problem of public housing, a front-burner issue during the Depression and in the post-World War II years. Williams was in a prime position to take an activist role. In 1933, Los Angeles mayor Frank Shaw had appointed him to the city’s first Housing Commission. That year he also began serving on the National Board of Municipal Housing. He was tapped to co-design the nation’s first federally funded public housing project, Langston Terrace in Washington, D.C., in 1936, and he designed the Pueblo Del Rio housing project in southeast Los Angeles in 1940.
During World War II he had contributed his services as an architect to the U.S. Navy, helping to design the naval station in Long Beach. After the war, he wrote two books, The Small Home of Tomorrow and New Homes of Today, which featured patterns and design tips aimed at young families, especially those of veterans wanting to build their own homes.
“He was very concerned with the problem of low-income housing, especially for African-Americans,” says John Johnson, founder of Johnson Publishing Co., whose Ebony magazine over the years published essays by Williams. “He showed this by his tremendous commitment in writing and speaking about the issue. He was thinking about how you can build something for yourself with a small amount of money.”
As ever, Williams’ emphasis was on comfort and livability; each of the floor plans had not only dimensions, but tips on colors, materials, labor-saving devices and the other little things that make a house a home.
“One of the greatest assets in preserving our democratic society is the American home,” he once wrote, “and even though the industrial revolution has caused many families to break up their old homes and move to greener pastures elsewhere, we are still the greatest nation of homeowners in the world.”
Williams welcomed the influence that comes with success. Over the decades, Presidents Coolidge, Roosevelt and Eisenhower appointed him to national commissions. He campaigned with presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s, traveled the country speaking on architecture and civil rights and piled up medals, commendations and honorary degrees. He continued to make major contributions to California, serving on statewide commissions under Governors Earl Warren and Goodwin Knight. In the service of his home town, Williams spent 11 years as president of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Commission. He built housing projects and the First AME Church. And he co-designed, with architect William Pereira, the futuristic, spider-shaped Theme Building that famously straddles Los Angeles International Airport.
As much as Williams shaped the city, the city shaped him. Nowhere else in the country was a black man making these kinds of contributions. Perhaps it was possible only in Los Angeles, still an infant city, still searching for an identity, still open in the best traditions of the American West.
“California represented an acceptance of both him, as an African-American, and his work,” says Robert Timme, dean of the USC School of Architecture. “Maybe Southern California was the only place he could have achieved all this.”
Certainly, during his lifetime there were reminders of where Williams came from. On his way to the Langston Terrace project in Washington, D.C., in 1937, he had to change trains in Texas to get on a Jim Crow car through the South. Decades later, he traveled to Memphis to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (which Williams had designed pro-bono as a favor to entertainer and close personal friend Danny Thomas, the hospital’s founder). The reception was held at the Peabody Hotel, where the architect’s father, Chester Williams, had once been head waiter.
“His life came completely full circle,” Hudson says.
To the end, past his retirement in 1973 and until he died in 1980, Williams referred to architecture as his “hobby.” He didn’t socialize with clients or bring work home. And once home, he rarely discussed his dazzling clientele. Weekends were to be spent with his wife Della (whom he had married in 1917), their two daughters and four grandchildren in the 1951 two-story California modern he had built in a newly integrated suburb called Lafayette Square. (One of those grandkids still lives there. The Paul R. Williams Residence, now owned by Hudson, recently graced the front page of the Los Angeles Times “Home” section.) The Williams family would cook out in the back yard or experiment with new restaurants. More often than not, Hudson says, they wound up at one of their favorite haunts, like Philippe’s in downtown Los Angeles.
As Williams’ health started to fail, the family would take long drives through the city. Every so often the architect would look out the window at one of his creations and smile. “He talked very little about his work when he was working,” Hudson says. “But when he was very ill, we’d go for drives and he’d say, ‘That’s a fine piece of work.’”
He was a doting family man who would pick up his grandchildren from elementary school in his Lincoln Continental and always brought presents home from business trips. “He worried about whether you got good grades, whether you sat up straight, whether you blew bubbles in your milk,” Hudson says.
Now she is the chronicler of his life, the author of a handsome picture book published in 1993 titled Paul R. Williams, Architect: A Legacy of Style. (There’s also a 1994 book for young readers, The Will and the Way.)
Both books nearly died abirthing. Hudson was in the midst of writing when Los Angeles erupted in riots in April 1992. The inner city burned for five days, and one of the first buildings to be lost was the Broadway Federal building, the site of Hudson’s office. (Williams had designed the landmark building for founder H. Claude Hudson, Karen Hudson’s paternal grandfather.)
Many Williams documents burned with the S&L. Gone were all the architect’s office files, many of his plans and sketches and the note cards he had always carried in his breast pocket (Williams was too suave to carry a briefcase). Fortunately, a considerable archive remained, and Hudson was able to reconstruct part of her collection from other sources. She is grateful her grandfathers weren’t around to see the ashes. “They would have been devastated by the destruction to their community.”
Were he alive today Williams would be disappointed, Hudson says, that still very few African-Americans are working as architects. Blacks make up about 5 percent of AIA membership, scarcely more than in Williams’ own time. On the bright side, she says, her famous grandfather saw incredible social change in his lifetime.
“He saw people of his own color moving up, working, progressing, some going to architecture school, and as he saw his own people coming along that made him happy.”
He most certainly would have been thrilled by the exhibition to honor him at the university where he learned the mechanics of his craft – and where he sent both his daughters, Marilyn Williams Hudson MEd ’60 and Norma Williams Harvey ’55. “USC was very dear to his heart,” she says. “The idea of his school and his community honoring him would make him very happy.
“He always loved a party.”
Shashank Bengali ’01, formerly a reporter with the Kansas City Star, is a graduate student at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He last wrote for the magazine on Ebony publisher Linda Johnson Rice ’80.