The Design and Influence of Paul R. Williams

Architect Paul Revere Williams was born in Downtown in 1894. An orphan, he would study architecture at USC, cross the color line and become a prominent and much sought-after building designer. 

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - In the Fashion District, around Eighth and Los Angeles streets, is a collection of older buildings that developer Mark Weinstein transformed into Santee Village. The mixed-use project has hundreds of housing units over first floor retail space. The courtyard of the complex contains a small, quiet fountain in tribute to one of our greatest Angelenos. 

He was Paul Revere Williams, an African-American who defied convention by becoming an architect. Over the decades, he became one of the most important and influential building designers in Los Angeles.

Williams was born in 1894 on Santee Street, about a block south of Santee Village. Both parents died when he was a child. He attended local schools, including Los Angeles Polytechnic High School on the grounds of today’s Los Angeles Trade-Technical College. The orphan went on to study architecture at USC, in spite of the many people who told him that he would not make it in that field. The conventional thinking of the time was that African-Americans would not survive, let alone thrive, in architecture.

In 1914, Williams won the prestigious “Four Corners” competition. As the Los Angeles Times reported on Sept. 13 of that year, the contest was judged by a distinguished panel of area architects who recognized his work on a local destination that brings commercial uses together. Williams stood out for an elegant design that made the commercial center more residential in feel and offered green space as a buffer. He took a known commercial product and spun it to seem more like coming home.

Williams went on to finish his studies and to become the first licensed African-American architect in the western half of the United States. After World War I, he studied under prominent architects including Reginald Johnson, Wilbur Cook, Jr. and John Austin. He tried to learn all the parts of his craft and sought to make his education as complete and as comprehensive as possible. His keen sense of design and proportion helped propel him beyond the color barrier of his day. Williams became a student of room arrangement, design, engineering, landscape, period architecture and, most importantly, human behavior.

Williams hung his own shingle in the early 1920s, a time of tremendous building throughout the Los Angeles area. One of his early works was a home in La Cañada-Flintridge for a member of the Cass family. The family was very important in Los Angeles, being involved in the insurance, telephone and advertising businesses going back to the 19th century.

Karen Hudson, in her beautiful book about her grandfather Paul R. Williams Architect: A Legacy of Style, looked at the Cass house. She wrote: “Although the mass of the house is broken up in a picturesque manner, the central halls and careful organization of the plan illustrate what Williams had learned from Reginald D. Johnson. In contrast, though, to Johnson’s work, Williams’ design is far more lively and openly romantic.”

One of Williams’ many talents was his learned ability to draw upside down, allowing clients to see what was unfolding without having to constantly shift the position of the paper and interrupt the design process. This type of skill helped elevate him above the crowd.

Williams designed houses in some of the finest sections of Los Angeles, including Bel-Air, Holmby Hills and Hancock Park. His homes command a premium today if his name is attached to the design. These were neighborhoods in which, as an African American, Williams could not live at the time.

On the commercial front, Williams worked with groups of architects to design some buildings that still stand in Downtown Los Angeles. He helped design the Los Angeles Federal Office Building at 300 N. Los Angeles St. He assisted on the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration and the Stanley Mosk Courthouse for the County of Los Angeles. Other iconic structures beyond Downtown that bear his influence are the Crescent Drive addition to the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport, a cooperative design with other architects.

His career spanned from the 1920s until the 1970s. He was devoted to his wife, Della, and their two daughters. He lived in a house that he designed for the family in Lafayette Square, a neighborhood at Crenshaw and Venice boulevards. 

Williams died in 1980. The quality and timelessness of his work outlive him today. We were fortunate to have him walk among us. 

Greg Fischer is an amateur historian and a Downtown Los Angeles resident.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2012