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Art & Design
A Trailblazing Black Architect Who Helped Shape L.A.
Originally published on Fri June 22, 2012 7:37 pm
Paul Revere Williams began designing homes and commercial buildings in the early 1920s. By the time he died in 1980, he had created some 2,500 buildings, most of them in and around Los Angeles, but also around the globe. And he did it as a pioneer: Paul Williams was African-American. He was the first black architect to become a member of the American Institute of Architects in 1923, and in 1957 he was inducted as the AIA's first black fellow.
His granddaughter, Karen E. Hudson, has been chronicling Williams' life and work for the past two decades. Her latest book, Paul R. Williams: Classic Hollywood Style, focuses on some of the homes of his celebrity clients. They feature many characteristics that were innovative when he used them in the 1920s through the '70s and are considered common practice now — like the patio as an extension of the house, and hidden, retractable screens.
When Paul Williams began his career, he could find no black architects to be his role models or mentors. Born in downtown Los Angeles in 1894, Williams became orphaned before he turned 4 when his parents, Chester and Lila, died of tuberculosis. A family friend raised him and told him he was so bright, he could do anything he wanted. And what he wanted was to design homes for families — perhaps because he lost his own so early in his life. Despite warnings from those who thought he was being impractical ("Your own people can't afford you, and white clients won't hire you," was one such warning), Williams became an architect.
His work has come to signify glamorous Southern California to the rest of the country — and to the world. One of his hallmarks — a luxuriantly curving staircase — has captivated many a potential owner. Retired financial services magnate Peter Mullin remembers how he felt when he saw his 1925 Colonial, the first one Williams built in L.A.'s posh Brentwood neighborhood.
"The first time I saw it, I didn't think I could afford the house, but if I could afford the staircase, I wanted to take it with me!" Mullin laughs. He bought the house — once inhabited by producer Ingwald Preminger, brother of director Otto — and has enjoyed it for 35 years.
"Every now and then, I think about leaving," Mullin admits. "Then I look around ... and I can't. I just love this place."
That sentiment may explain why Williams' homes don't come on the market very often.
Bret Parsons is head of the architectural division of John Aaroe Group, a Beverly Hills real estate brokerage handling multimillion-dollar properties. He says when Williams homes come up for sale, real estate agents scramble to get the listing. "They're gobbled up in seconds," he says. "They're an absolute pedigree for someone to have in their arsenal."
Parsons says Williams homes posses grace, design and elegant proportions, which attracted people with money and taste.
Several of them were celebrities from Hollywood's heyday. Williams built an elegant bachelor pad for Frank Sinatra when the singer was between marriages. Lucille Ball and husband Desi Arnaz were clients. So was Cary Grant. Danny Thomas was both client and friend — Williams designed St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis gratis, as a favor to Thomas (and made Thomas promise not to tell, so he wasn't deluged with similar requests). In recent years, Denzel Washington, Ellen DeGeneres and Andy Garcia all have lived in Williams homes.
At the Beverly Hills Hotel, Williams designed the iconic Polo Lounge, the Crescent Wing and the Pink Palace's signature loopy signage. He also chose the colors — pink and green — that would signify the ultimate in service to its pampered guests for a century.
Actor-philanthropist Bill Cosby recalls seeing a Williams home when he and wife Camille went house-hunting. The TV series I Spy made Cosby famous — and rich. He and Camille wanted to live in Beverly Hills, and they wanted a brick home. "Brick is not conducive to the desert heat that is Los Angeles," Cosby chuckles, "but we were looking for brick."
To the East Coast Cosbys, brick symbolized a certain kind of moneyed refinement. "Back home, stucco was for poorer people — and in the winter, it was cold," he recalls. So when they were shown a 1932 brick Colonial Revival floating on rolling lawns, they were intrigued. When they walked inside, they were sold. "The entry was grand," Cosby says, drawing the swirl of the staircase in the air with one finger, "but once one entered the house, it became a home."
That innate ability to make grand spaces cozy is another Williams signature.
Sitting in the 1951 home Williams designed for himself, his granddaughter says her grandfather made many pragmatic adjustments to the reality of racism in his day. "He taught himself to draw upside down so white clients wouldn't be uncomfortable sitting next to him." And, Hudson says with a smile, "it became one of the things he was known for." Williams toured construction sites with hands clasped behind his back, like an English royal, because he wasn't sure every person would want to shake a black man's hand. So he gave them the option of extending their hand first. Many of the neighborhoods in which his homes were located were closed to him because of his race.
That's something California had in common with several other American states — not all of them in the South. Hudson notes that there were also restrictive covenants in greater Los Angeles. "By law, he could not live in some of the places [where he designed homes]. Particularly in Flintridge, where he designed his first home in his own office, the land deed said a black person could not even spend the night."
She says Williams found a way to work around such barriers because he had an ultimate goal in mind. "He believed that for every home and every commercial building that he could not buy and that he could not live in, he was opening doors for the next generation."
In a 1937 essay for American Magazine called "I Am a Negro," Williams shared some of his own philosophy.
"Virtually everything pertaining to my professional life during those early years was influenced by my need to offset race prejudice, by my effort to force white people to consider me as an individual rather than a member of a race," he wrote. "I encountered irreconcilables who simply refused to give me a hearing, but on the whole, I have been treated with amazing fairness."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is the end of our week broadcasting here from Southern California, so it's fitting that we end our series on West Coast Innovators with the story of the man whose architecture helped transmit the idea of Southern California to the rest of the country.
Paul Revere Williams began designing homes and commercial buildings in the early 1920s. By the time he died in 1980, he'd created some 2,500 buildings, most of them in and around Los Angeles, but also around the world and he did it as a pioneer. Paul Williams was African-American.
NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has been reporting on Williams' life and work and she joins me here in the studio. Hi, Karen.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Hey, Melissa.
BLOCK: And, you know, when we first started bouncing around this idea of innovators, right away, you came back and said, let's do Paul Williams.
BLOCK: Why? How did you learn about him?
BATES: Well, when I first moved to Los Angeles, several people, in trying to acquaint me with the city, would take me on tours and everybody would always go past this one house and point it out as the house of Paul Williams, a prominent black architect. In fact, he was the first black member of the AIA, the American Institute of Architects.
BLOCK: When was that?
BATES: Nineteen twenty-three. So, a few years later, I met his granddaughter, Karen Hudson, when she was in the process of writing her first book on his work and I became fascinated with two things. First, the fact that a black man was doing this kind of work back then and how forward-looking a lot of the details in his homes were. He created grand houses for wealthy people, but they weren't stiff and formal. They took advantage of the climate and the sort of relaxed Southern California lifestyle. You can see some of those on our website.
BLOCK: I'm looking at them right now, Karen, at NPR.org and they're lovely. There are a lot of windows, a lot of natural light coming in, really open to the environment.
BATES: Yeah. He really believed in sort of trying to erase the line of demarcation between the outdoors and the indoors.
BLOCK: And, Karen, you're going to tell us about a party that you went to for a new book on Paul Williams' celebrity clients.
BATES: Yes. It's called "Paul R. Williams: Classic Hollywood Style," also by his granddaughter, Karen Hudson. Let's eavesdrop on that book party.
PETER MULLIN: It's great to have you all here today, particularly to celebrate Karen and her book and her grandfather and a beautiful Southern California day.
BATES: Before introducing author Karen Hudson, host Peter Mullin confesses to his garden full of well-healed guests that he was attracted to the house they're standing before without knowing much about its creator.
MULLIN: Frankly, I didn't know anything about Paul Williams at the time, but I did love the architecture of this house and quickly learned about Paul Williams and what an extraordinary talent he was.
BATES: All the more so because when Williams began his career, there were no black architects he could find as role models or mentors. Born in downtown Los Angeles in 1894, Williams became orphaned before he was four when both his parents died of tuberculosis. A family friend raised him and told him he was so bright, he could do anything he wanted.
He wanted to design homes for families, perhaps because he lost his own so early in life. His work has come to signify Southern California glamour to the rest of the country and the world. The bright, airy rooms and the oversized windows that, as he put it, bring the outdoors in are common now, but weren't when Williams began practicing in the early 1920s.
Peter Mullin remembers how he felt when he saw his 1925 colonial.
MULLIN: The first time I saw it, I thought, with the beautiful pillars and the Georgian colonial style and I went inside to the front entry hall and looked at that spiraling staircase and I didn't think I could afford the house, but if I could afford the staircase, I wanted to take it with me.
BATES: He's not alone. That gracefully curving staircase is one of Williams' signatures. It shows up in most of his private homes and in many of his commercial buildings.
BRET PARSONS: The ubiquitous trademark is the stair hall. He did the most beautiful entry halls I've ever seen.
BATES: Bret Parsons is head of the architectural division of John Aaroe, a Beverly Hills realtor that handles multimillion dollar properties. When Williams' homes come on the market, Parsons says, they sell almost immediately. One allure is the man's personal history.
PARSONS: He was an African-American practicing in Southern California in the '30s and '40s when that just wasn't done.
BATES: The other draw, the undisputed quality of his designs.
PARSONS: His work stands the test of time. He had a sublime ability to master style and proportion.
BATES: It's what attracted so many of Hollywood's A-list celebrities during Williams' long career. He built an elegant bachelor pad for Frank Sinatra when the singer was between marriages. Lucille Ball and husband Desi Arnaz were clients. So was Cary Grant. Danny Thomas was both client and friend. Williams designed St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis, gratis, as a favor to Thomas. In recent years, Denzel and Pauletta Washington, Ellen DeGeneres and Andy Garcia have lived in Williams' homes.
At the Beverly Hills Hotel, Williams designed its iconic Polo Lounge, among other parts. Actor-philanthropist Bill Cosby thinks back to when he and his wife Camille went house hunting after the TV series, "I Spy," made Cosby famous. They wanted a specific kind of home.
BILL COSBY: Brick is not conducive to the heat of the desert which is Los Angeles, but we were looking for brick.
BATES: To the East Coast Cosbys, brick symbolized money to refinement. They were shown the 1932 brick colonial revival that seemed to float above rolling lawns and, he remembers, they felt immediately comfortable in it.
COSBY: The entry was grand, but once one entered the house, it became a home.
BATES: Sitting in the 1951 home Paul Williams designed for himself, Karen Hudson says her grandfather taught himself to draw upside down, so white clients wouldn't be uncomfortable sitting next to him. Many of the neighborhoods in which his homes were located were closed to him because of his race.
KAREN HUDSON: By law, he could not live in some of the places, particularly in Flintridge, where he designed his first home in his own office. The land deed said a black person could not even spend the night.
BATES: She says Williams found a way to work around such barriers because he had an ultimate goal in mind.
HUDSON: He believed that for every home and every commercial building that he could not buy and that he could not live in, he was opening doors for the next generation.
BATES: So, Melissa, now people in Los Angeles can pretty much live where they'd like to, so that part of the door opening worked. We have a little work to do on the architectural end of it. There was a recent survey that showed that less than two percent of the nation's registered architects are African-American.
BLOCK: OK. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates, thank you.
BATES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.