Paul R. Williams, American Architect

By Gabi Conti

Drawing of Los Angeles Civil Center Mall. (Getty Images)

You may not know the name Paul R. Williams, but if you've ever been to Los Angeles, you've probably admired his work. Born in the City of Angels on February 18, 1894, the young Williams faced immense hardship early in life, losing both parents to tuberculosis by the age of four. After a stint in foster care, Williams was adopted by a family friend who recognized his precocious intelligence. As a young man, he grew to love the architecture of Los Angeles but was discouraged from studying architecture by his teachers, who warned him, "Your own people can't afford you, and white clients won't hire you."

Fortunately, Williams didn't listen. He enrolled in the Los Angeles School of Art and Design before earning a degree in architectural engineering from the University of Southern California, becoming the first certified black architect in the western United States and the first black member of the American Institute of Architects. He got his big break when he secured a job with famous architect John C. Austin, known for his work on the Griffith Observatory and the Los Angeles City Hall, among others.

Paul Revere Williams. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Although Williams flew higher than his teachers ever imagined, they were correct that his race made his wealthy white clients uncomfortable. He actually learned to draft upside-down because they preferred to sit across from rather than next to him. In the 1937 American Magazine essay "I Am a Negro," Williams wrote:

I came to realize that I was being condemned, not by lack of ability but by my color. I passed through successive stages of bewilderment, inarticulate protest, resentment, and finally, reconciliation to the status of my race. Eventually, however, as I grew older and thought more clearly, I found in my condition an incentive to personal accomplishment and inspiring challenge. Without having the wish to "show them," I developed a fierce desire to show myself.

His reputation grew, and soon, he struck out on his own and began building affordable homes that felt crafted yet accessible and balanced elegance with modesty. Eventually, he went on to design bigger, more glamorous houses that have since become iconic across the city, often for huge stars like Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, and Barbara Stanwyck. He even helmed the 1940s redesign of the Beverly Hills Hotel, whose iconic sign is written in Williams's own handwriting. Around 2,000 homes designed by Williams still stand in Los Angeles, many of which have been granted historic status. During World War II, Williams shifted gears somewhat to aid the war effort, working as an architect for the U.S. Navy.

LAX Theme Building, July 1962. (EditorASC/Wikimedia Commons)

Williams was ever adaptable, granting him the flexibility to design in many different styles at many different price points and earning him descriptors like "master of creative eclecticism." One of his most recognizable innovations was placing the kitchen toward the front of the home rather than the back so the dining space could open out toward the backyard, a feature not common before his time and enjoyed by clients who were prone to throwing house parties or just liked to enjoy the garden while they ate.

His most iconic building is probably the LAX Theme Building, which sits at the heart of the Los Angeles International Airport and can often be seen on T.V. and the silver screen. After he passed away in 1980 at the age of 85 due to complications from diabetes, his funeral was held at a church that he himself designed. He received many awards throughout his life, but his greatest honor arrived well after his death when the American Institute of Architect awarded him their Gold Medal in 2017, celebrating him for "his pioneering career [that] has encouraged others to cross a chasm of historic biases."

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Gabi Conti