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Paul Revere Home Tour in La Cañada

Mar 16, 2015

PRWilliams_House_Design_cropIn 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.¹ 

This encounter triggered Paul Revere Williams to make a life-altering decision. He would not modify his ambitions simply because he was a Black man, believing that to do so would “inevitably form the habit of being defeated.” He saw his decision to go forward and succeed the best he could as a “challenge” he owed to himself and “to my people.”

“He was the Jackie Robinson of architecture,” says Beverly Hills realtor Crosby Doe.

 

Paul Revere Williams_Architect

 

Williams’ parents died when he was only five years old and, subsequently, was entered into the foster care system. He was raised by Mrs. Clarkson who recognized his artistic aptitude and encouraged his pursuit of art. “His gift caught the eye of his foster mother’s friend, a builder who first got Paul thinking about a career in architecture.”

Williams graduated from Polytechnic in 1912. Taking evening classes at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design, during the day he worked as an “office boy” for the prestigious firm of landscape architect Wilbur D. Cook, Jr. During this time, Williams won “first prize in a national student competition to design a civic center for Pasadena.” In 1916, Williams enrolled in a 3-year program in architectural engineering at USC.

 

 

Louis Cass knew Williams from Polytechnic High and hired him in 1921 to build a home in the Flintridge hills. With Cass’ encouragement, Williams used the monies for the home to start his own firm. Initially, people who were interested in enlisting his talents turned away once they saw that he was African-American:

“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.”

Williams persevered and eventually his talents prevailed—though he did have to master 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).”

In 1929, he was awarded the contract to build a hilltop estate in Pasadena for horse breeder Jack P. Atkin at the cost of $500,000.

The 1930s and ‘40s were busy years for Williams, particularly with commercial projects. For a four-year span, from 1947 to 1951, he “contributed the designs for the (Beverly Hills Hotel) revamped Polo Lounge, the Fountain Shop, and—as legend has it—the hotel’s signage itself, the smart script familiar to anyone who has ever cruised down Sunset Boulevard.”

 

Beverly Hills Hotel entrance: Photograph, David Horan, 2010 Paul Revere Williams Project

Beverly Hills Hotel entrance: Photograph, David Horan, 2010; Paul R. Williams Project

 

Williams designed homes in Beverly Hills, Bel Air, the Hollywood Hills, the Mid-Wilshire district, and nearby San Marino for the likes of Sinatra, Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Tyrone Power, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Danny Thomas, and Zsa Zsa Gabor, which earned him the nickname “architect to the stars.”

His style has been described as stately but comfortable, as well as smooth curves with quiet elegance. Architect Max Bond wrote that Williams’ residential designs were “affable, well-mannered, gracious and graceful, a mite different but not so different as to shock…a California style of self-assured, easy worldliness.”

 

Paley Residence, Bel Air 1934

Paley Residence, Bel Air 1934

 

His approach was “client-centered” and he had a “willingness to bend formal rules of revival design by mixing different historic elements,” such as Tudor with English Cottage styles, or French and Gothic revival. He also designed ranch homes, Southern Colonial-style, Monterey Revival, and Spanish Colonial Revival. Williams paid particular attention to outdoor living spaces and worked closely with landscapers and interior decorators.

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.”

Williams designed the Second Baptist Church and the 28th Street YMCA, which was located “in the African-American community.” 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.

In 1933, Williams was asked to co-design the nation’s first federally funded public housing project in Washington D.C. and, in 1940, “he designed the Pueblo Del Rio housing project in southeast Los Angeles.”

 

Williams_Paul_R_

Photo source: BlackPast.org

 

 

Over the course of his career, Williams was involved in three thousand projects, from the LAX “Theme” building, the Ambassador Hotel, and Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills to Perino’s “The Place” for high society after WWII with patrons such as Bugsy Siegel, Cole Porter, and Frank Sinatra—and “all bear the Williams stamp.”

On March 28th, Friends of the Gamble House welcome the public to a tour a Williams’ designed home in the La Cañada area and to enjoy a presentation by documentarian Royal Kennedy Rogers. The home is English Revival style and was built in 1927.

 

Paul Williams_Design_a

 

Paul R. Williams Home Tour
Saturday, March 28th, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
La Canada (exact location provided upon ticket reservation)
Cost: $35, general; $30, FOGH members
Purchase tickets here
For complete details, visit GambleHouse.org
Or call 1.626.793.3334

 

Perino's Restaurant, Dining room, 1964: Photo by Maynard L. Parker, The Huntington Library; sourced from Paul R. Williams Project

Perino’s Restaurant, Dining room, 1964: Photo by Maynard L. Parker, The Huntington Library; sourced from Paul R. Williams Project

 

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¹ “Williams the Conqueror” by Shashank Bengali, Spring 2004 issue, USC.edu. (All italicized portions of above article sourced from this article.)

For more articles on Paul Revere Williams by Shashank Bengali, please visit:
Williams the Conqueror – Playing Easy to Get
Williams the Congqueror – Breathless in Brentwood

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Source information for article provided by Friends of Gamble House, PaulRWilliamsProject.org, and “Williams the Conqueror” by Shashank Bengali, Spring 2004 issue, USC.edu.

 




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