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Paul Williams Architect

This prolific architect spent 50 years creating a legacy of buildings that helps define the look of today's upscale Los Angeles.

the Theme Building at the LA International Airport, image
Photo caption
Williams contributed to the spidery, futuristic Theme Building in the middle of Los Angeles International Airport.

Today I sketched the preliminary plans for a large country house which will be erected in one of the most beautiful residential districts in the world. . . . Sometimes I have dreamed of living there. I could afford such a home. But this evening . . . I returned to my own small, inexpensive home . . . in a comparatively undesirable section of Los Angeles. Dreams cannot alter facts; I know . . . I must always live in that locality, or in another like it, because . . . I am a Negro.

So wrote Paul Williams in a 1937 American Magazine article. Anyone who wanted to see one of the homes Williams dreamed of living in could just have bought a ticket to that year’s hit comedy film Topper. In the movie, Cary Grant and Constance Bennett—as two very glamorous ghosts—come back to haunt a stodgy banker who lives in an enormous Tudor mansion with terraces and fountains, grand wooden doors, and lush gardens. The grounds are ravishing; the house is opulent.

Topper’s house was, of course, a Paul Williams house. Williams had designed the 16-room Pasadena home in 1929 for Jack Atkin, a British immigrant who’d made his fortune racing thoroughbreds. At the time Williams wrote his American Magazine essay, actor Tyrone Power was living in a Williams house; so was Barbara Stanwyck. More prestigious commissions were in the works.

Over the next four decades, Williams would become known as the "architect to the stars," creating homes for Anthony Quinn, Bert Lahr, Danny Thomas, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. He designed Frank Sinatra’s swank 1950s bachelor pad and a Palm Springs getaway for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

And it wasn’t just houses. Williams conceived or reconceived such familiar icons of the Southern California good life as Perino’s, a 1950s hangout for the beautiful people, and Chasen’s, the Spago of its day, which he renovated in 1968. In the late ’40s he reworked the Beverly Hills Hotel, adding some buildings, redesigning others, and splashing all with the now trademark pink and green. He contributed to the spidery, futuristic Theme Building in the middle of Los Angeles International Airport.

It’s more than a little ironic that one of the men responsible for designing the L.A. of popular imagination—a sumptuous playground where the elite frolic—was black.

But to mention only the glitzy projects would do an injustice to Williams’s long and varied career. The native Angeleno and lifelong Republican built churches, mortuaries, banks, offices, and civic centers in black neighborhoods. He was chief architect on the 400-unit Pueblo del Rio housing project in southeast LA In the 1940s he wrote two books about designing attractive, livable middle-class homes. His buildings are found in every corner of Los Angeles, and they’re scattered throughout the rest of the world, from Colombia to Liberia to San Francisco. It would have been an extraordinary career for any architect.

For a black architect, born in 1894 (Williams died in 1980), it was almost unbelievable. His will to succeed seems to have been innate. Orphaned at age 4 and raised by foster parents, Williams excelled at drawing, and in high school decided to become an architect. He got no encouragement. But he didn’t require much. "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 wrote of his early decision to forge ahead.

In his teens and early twenties, he worked for several architecture firms, and enrolled in engineering school at the University of Southern California (though he never graduated). In 1919 he won a major residential architectural competition. The judges commended the simplicity and "good taste" of his designs, noting they were free of "useless ornaments or expensive fads.

Those early clean, careful designs won him a job with the prestigious John C. Austin architecture firm, where he stayed for three years. Then in 1922, at age 28, Williams opened his own practice.

Just how bold this was is hard for us now to understand. Here is Williams’s own description of meetings with prospective white clients in the early days of his firm: "In the moment that 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."

Williams didn’t waste time nursing hurt feelings. He saw the race issue as a practical problem, calling for practical solutions. He adjusted to his white clients’ discomfort in part by learning to draw upside down, so the clients wouldn’t have to sit next to him.

He worked harder and longer than other young architects. "My success during those first few years was founded largely upon my willingness—anxiety would be a better word—to accept commissions which were rejected as too small by other, more favored, architects," he wrote in American Magazine."I labored over the plans for a $15,000 residence as diligently as I do today on the plans for a huge mansion." Being black forced him, in his own words, "willy-nilly to develop salesmanship."

Those tough early experiences served Williams well. He knew that if architecture was an art, it was also a game. And he was prepared to play. "He got on the very first Los Angeles planning commission in 1920," notes architectural historian Diane Kanner. "He was, right off the bat, a politician. He knew you had to make friends at city hall to get big commissions." Within three years he had become the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Southern California Chapter. (In 1957 he became the first black elected to the distinguished AIA College of Fellows; it would be five years before the College gained another black member.)

He also knew you needed big-name clients. In the early ’30s he was approached by auto manufacturer E.L. Cord, who was looking for someone to design his new house. Williams sized the man up instantly. He wrote later that he could sense, even over the phone, that Cord "worshipped prompt action." Williams promised preliminary plans within 24 hours of their first meeting. Other architects had requested weeks.

When Williams without breaking to eat or sleep delivered on schedule, Cord awarded him the commission for a 16-bedroom, 22-bathroom Southern Colonial home in Beverly Hills.

"Probably more than any other house he had designed, the Cord residence fully established Williams as an eminent society architect in Southern California," the late architectural historian David Gebhard wrote.

Salesmanship, charm, and doggedness were crucial. But Paul Williams also did wonderful work. His architectural style is elusive; Williams produced some 3,000 buildings, but there isn’t necessarily a distinctive Williams stamp.

"It was very important to him to please his clients," says Karen Hudson, his granddaughter and biographer. And his clients often wanted very different looks. The handsome, rectilinear 28th Street YMCA in South Central L.A., featuring portraits of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, bears no resemblance to the luxurious, terraced Bel Air home complete with a ballroom and a pool so narrow that his rich client, who couldn’t swim, would never feel uncomfortably far from safety. In the Founder’s Church of Religious Science—stocky, domed, and round—there isn’t even a trace of the lovely brick Second Baptist Church he designed in 1924.

"He was very characteristic of the era," says Ken Breisch, a professor of architecture at the University of Southern California. "A lot of architects were experimenting, trying to find an idiom that was right for the country." If he settled on one idiom, it was a graceful and streamlined historicism, most apparent in his upscale homes and public buildings.

At mid-century, Paul Williams was the last word in elegant traditionalism. And the Hollywood crowd loved it. "The nouveaux riches were looking for legitimacy," Breisch says. "There was a sense that architecture of the past might give them that. That it might make their money seem like it had been around longer."

But Williams didn’t just churn out straight, anachronistic copies of the Tudor—or Spanish Colonial or Georgian—houses they coveted. If a client wanted columns, Williams supplied columns. But they were slim and stylized. The facades he designed were broad and clean, free of clutter and excess ornament.

The effect of his work was rarely imposing or ostentatious: It was historicism reduced to its essence. "He refined his clients’ aspirations," says Merry Ovnick, a professor of cultural history at California State University, Northridge. "He was their tutor in good taste. If he’d done exactly what they told him to, they would have ended up with tacky buildings. Williams prevented kitsch."

For more information, see Paul R. Williams, Architectby Karen E. Hudson. The 1993 Rizzoli publication is out of print but available in libraries.

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On a quiet street, in an unpretentious but affluent Los Angeles neighborhood, sits one of the most appealing houses Williams ever designed. In the early 1950s, LA’s upper-middle-class Lafayette Square began to open up to blacks, and in 1951 Williams built a house there for his family. He put no columns on his house; there were no fancy terraces, no ornate fountains. It does not evoke any bygone style. The Williams family house has clean lines, an upstairs deck, a few palm trees, and a wide lawn.

At the end of a day looking at the mansions that designed so much of Williams’s career, this trim, modern house is refreshing. It’s probably the most memorable of them all. It is what Paul Williams designed when the client he wanted to please was himself.

Photography courtesy of the City of Los Angeles Department of Airports

This article was first published in September 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.