Hollywood’s Master Builder
The African-American architect Paul R. Williams channeled the glamorous but breezy spirit of the Golden Age of Hollywood in designs that allowed his clients and the public to imagine themselves in fantasies akin to those spun out by the great movie studios.
Revisions of the modern architectural canon have been going on for almost as long as modern architecture itself. But our perceptions of what constitutes excellence in the building art and who should get credit for it have shifted considerably of late. Beginning in the 1970s there was a move away from the standard definition of Modernism as an unadorned machine aesthetic and toward a broader purview that included many of the lesser-known Modernist variants that flourished simultaneously with its most familiar manifestation--the reductive International Style.
More recently, closer attention has been given to neglected issues of gender and race. Among the reputations that have benefited most from the growing insistence that we expand the canon beyond the white, male, European-American roster that dominated critical discourse throughout the twentieth century has been that of Paul R. Williams, the Los Angeles–based African-American architect whose five-decade career was astoundingly prolific (he produced some three thousand designs, in contrast to Frank Lloyd Wright’s eleven hundred) and incomparably emblematic of its cultural milieu. Better than any of his architectural peers, Williams defined the Golden Age of Hollywood in built form and channeled its glamorous but breezy spirit in designs that allowed his private clients and the general public to participate in fantasies akin to those spun out by the great movie studios.
The fact that a Black man could have accomplished so much in the lily-white world of midcentury American architecture seems no less remarkable now than it did when he was still active six decades ago. Williams declined to attend the opening, in his parents’ hometown of Memphis, of his St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital of 1959–1962 (the pet charity of the comedian Danny Thomas, an LA client and close friend for whom he did the job free of charge) because he refused to face the humiliations then routinely inflicted on people of color in the South. The architect finally saw his completed design--an innovative but cost-efficient Space Age composition of five radial two-story wings projecting from a circular core--during its tenth anniversary celebrations, well after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned the public discrimination that had kept him away.
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Williams believed in giving his clients what they wanted rather than what he wanted, and though he could turn out first-rate Modernist designs on request--such as his superb Robert Norman Williams (no relation) house of 1947 in Ontario, California--most people preferred other styles. His eclectic design ethos ran an encyclopedic gamut from stolid Tudor and romantic Spanish Colonial to exotic Orientalism and the lightweight neo-Georgian hybrid now known as Hollywood Regency, and as a result he has not been taken seriously as a high-style architect with a readily identifiable aesthetic all his own.
His heyday coincided with both the careers of European architects who came to California before World War II, including Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Albert Frey, and the Case Study House program of 1945–1966, which drew on such American-born experimentalists as Charles and Ray Eames, Craig Ellwood, and Pierre Koenig. They perfected a new easy-living aesthetic that led to the nationwide acceptance of modern domestic architecture, and their futuristic ingenuity made Williams’s approach look old-fashioned and insubstantial.
Today’s reawakened interest in this prodigious shapeshifter is reflected in the acquisition of his archive last year by the Getty Research Institute and the University of Southern California School of Architecture, which jointly purchased it from the architect’s family for an undisclosed sum. The transaction was overseen by Williams’s granddaughter and principal advocate, Karen E. Hudson, who has written three books on him that initiated a much-needed reappraisal. (In 1992 his business papers, which were stored for safekeeping in a South Central LA bank he remodeled, were destroyed when rioters burned the building after four LAPD officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King were acquitted. Fortunately, Hudson had earlier removed Williams’s drawings and plans to use for a publication she was preparing, and thereby saved his visual records.)
Two handsome monographs have also recently been issued. Paul R. Williams, by Marc Appleton, Stephen Gee, and Bret Parsons, is part of their twelve-volume series Master Architects of Southern California 1920–1940 and reproduces black-and-white period photographs of his houses that first ran in The Architectural Digest, the regional precursor of today’s glossy decorating magazine.
If the illustrations of immaculate interiors in this survey resemble publicity stills of Hollywood movie sets from 1930s and 1940s romantic comedies, then Janna Ireland’s Regarding Paul R. Williams: A Photographer’s View has a film-noir feeling. This impression arises from the moody atmosphere of Ireland’s black-and-white images—antithetical to the sun-blasted, washed-out tonalities so characteristic of Southern California (as evoked in Stephen Shore’s much-admired LA color photos of the 1970s)--and an elegiac air that suffuses these faded beauties in their genteel decay.
Although there can be no questioning Williams’s cultural significance and the justness of his now being accorded a higher place in twentieth-century architecture than he was upon his death, in 1980 at age eighty-five, he was by no means the first important African-American architect. That distinction belongs to Julian Abele (1881–1950), the chief designer in the Philadelphia atelier of Horace Trumbauer, which created such grand civic set pieces as the Acropolis-like Philadelphia Museum of Art of 1916–1928. Hired by Trumbauer in 1906, Abele, a highly adept Classicist, was relegated to the back office at a time and place when it was deemed impossible to present a Black man as a professional to white clients. But whereas Abele was intent on closely adhering to the rules of Classicism and did so expertly, Williams had no such interest, as is evident in his carefree play with traditional design elements that better suited the informal Los Angeles way of life.
By 1923, the year Williams set up his practice there, racial attitudes had improved enough for him to become the first Black person admitted to the American Institute of Architects. He served as his firm’s public face, albeit in a part of the country far less bound by social and racial rigidities than Philadelphia. Yet he was always sensitive to the unease some white people might feel in dealing with him and was quick to realize when a potential client had not known he was Black until they first met. Thus he taught himself how to draw upside down so that he could remain behind his desk and make conceptual sketches for those who might be uncomfortable sitting side by side with him.
Williams’s wide-ranging job roster makes it difficult to summarize his stylistic traits, but the preponderance of houses he designed in the Hollywood Regency mode allow certain generalizations. Typical Williams design touches include full-height entry porticoes supported by attenuated columns that flout the height-to-width ratios prescribed in Classical architecture; second-story windows that project above the eaves like quizzical eyebrows, again contradicting the Classical edict that they should lie well below a parapet; and expansive façades that betray a cheery disregard for the well-balanced proportional formulas devised by the ancient Greeks. Their Golden Section has had no writ in the Golden State.
If the operative principle underlying Williams’s architecture was pure pleasure, who could object to that in midcentury America, which was about to reach its apex of prosperity? Present-day nostalgia for that halcyon era is confirmed by the premium prices that buyers now pay for documented Williams projects. (His Jay Paley house of 1935–1936 in Beverly Hills was put on the market in 2020 for $75 million.) But demand has outstripped supply, and spurious attributions abound (as they once did for alleged Stanford White houses on the East Coast). To fill the void, shrewd contractors now concoct pastiches they market as “in the manner of Paul Williams,” imitations that reaffirm the sincerest form of flattery.
Paul Revere Williams was born in Los Angeles in 1894 to striving middle-class parents who had recently moved from Memphis because they hoped the climate would relieve the tuberculosis from which they suffered. Unfortunately, both died within four years, but Paul had the good fortune to be adopted by a family that encouraged him to achieve whatever high goals he set for himself, and he responded with extraordinary self-confidence and drive. As Hudson explains in Hollywood’s Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story, an informative documentary directed by Royal Kennedy Rodgers and Kathy McCampbell Vance, he had to piece together his architectural education from a variety of sources, since the usual methods that led to professional accreditation--which included enrollment in a university school of architecture or apprenticeship under an established practitioner—were then closed to Blacks. He received his primary training in engineering from USC, which now proudly bills itself as his alma mater.
Early on Williams learned to deal with discriminatory social conventions so that he could advance himself in spite of them. As he wrote in a 1937 American Magazine article, “I Am a Negro”:
Of course I know I cannot be accepted socially by whites. I have no desire to be, for I firmly believe that the Negro, in order to break down the racial barriers which affect his business success, should be ever careful in preserving the social barriers that set him apart.
Williams was more candid years later: in a private memoir he wrote for his grandson, he admitted bitterness at not being able to live in the same neighborhoods where he built houses for white clients.
Perhaps the most telling example of persistent real estate prejudice in his work was the fieldstone-clad ranch-style house he built in the Bel-Air section of Los Angeles in 1954 for the lawyer and jurist David W. Williams (also no relation), who fifteen years later would be appointed the first Black federal judge west of the Mississippi. As a pioneering civil rights attorney, David Williams had been part of the NAACP team headed by Thurgood Marshall that challenged the legality of racially restrictive covenants, which were declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1948. However, the architect and his client knew that other, indirect means were used to keep Blacks out of predominantly white areas. In order to buy the land he wanted, David Williams pretended to be from another city and conducted all his negotiations over the telephone to avoid being seen by the seller. The ploy succeeded. (Two years earlier, the architect had been able to build a house for himself in LA’s Lafayette Park after restrictions on Blacks living there had ended.)
Unlike the majority of African-Americans, who backed the Democratic Party during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, Paul Williams became a Republican, then the dominant political power in Southern California. To be sure, his politics were more racially progressive than those of the right-wing Republican movement that burgeoned in nearby Orange County, and he campaigned with the moderate Nelson Rockefeller during his abortive attempt to wrest the 1964 Republican presidential nomination from the conservative Barry Goldwater. But in his certitude that to get along you had to play along, Williams--impeccably courteous, soft-spoken, and well tailored--wasn’t alone among high-achieving Blacks. The virtuoso vibraphonist Lionel Hampton was another avid Rockefeller supporter, and in return for his electioneering in the Black community the four-term New York governor facilitated the construction of the musician’s Lionel Hampton Houses, a low- and middle-income apartment complex in Harlem.
Despite the obstacles Williams faced, he enjoyed the steady patronage of LA’s liberal-minded show business community. The Hollywood stars for whom he designed and remodeled houses included Cary Grant, Tyrone Power, and Barbara Stanwyck. Ronald Reagan and his first wife, Jane Wyman, bought a Williams house in Beverly Hills from a previous owner; Reagan and his second wife, Nancy Davis, were given a wedding reception in another Williams house, owned by their friends William Holden and Brenda Marshall. He had three commissions from Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the last a vacation retreat in Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs, on a lot that Arnaz, a compulsive gambler, won in a poker game. Many of Williams’s patrons worked offscreen, such as the director Otto Preminger, the lyricist Yip Harburg, and a number of studio executives.
The most publicized of all his houses was the swinging bachelor pad he designed for Frank Sinatra in 1955 on a dramatic hilltop site in the newly developed Trousdale Estates section of Beverly Hills. Sinatra, a longtime Democrat before he switched to the Republican Party in 1972, unhesitatingly hired a Black architect, having long championed civil rights causes and countless Black musicians. Williams received enormous national exposure when Sinatra welcomed the TV cameras of Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person show into his home a year after it was completed.
The Sinatra house has been described as Japanese Modern, though it owes rather less to the Classical architecture of that country than did the turn-of-the-century designs of Wright and Greene & Greene, or indeed any number of Midcentury Modern architects on the West Coast. Its low-slung rooflines and clustered pavilions conformed to Trousdale Estates’ zoning requirement that single-story structures preserve distant views. And though its flow of open-plan spaces had a somewhat East Asian quality heightened by a leitmotif of stylized fretwork screens, it brought to mind The King and I more than Katsura. The house survived until 2006, when it was razed to make way for what one local historian called “the ten-millionth muddleterranean mess to dot the Hills of Beverly,” a fate that has befallen much of Williams’s residential oeuvre.
In addition to his many domestic commissions, he also designed two favorite restaurants of film industry insiders: a remodeling of Chasen’s in West Hollywood, which was enlivened by Williams’s red-leather-upholstered booths, beloved by the stars (Reagan’s is preserved in his presidential library), and Perino’s in the Mid-Wilshire district (which was used as a location for Frank Perry’s 1981 Joan Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest). Williams’s main dining room at Perino’s was a brilliant bit of show-biz mise-en-scène, as I recall from my visits there before it closed in 1986. This windowless high-ceilinged oval rotunda, in a vaguely classical French mode with two concentric rings of curve-crested oval banquettes upholstered in apricot velour, provided unobstructed sightlines from every seat in the house and acknowledged that no one loves seeing celebrities more than other celebrities. The owners of both establishments also asked Williams to design houses for them, Alexander Perino in 1945 and Dave Chasen in 1953.
Another preferred hangout for Hollywood machers was the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, which Williams remodeled as part of his ongoing series of renovations at the 1912 Spanish Colonial landmark after World War II. With his faultless sense of what was required in each job, Williams arranged the Polo Lounge--for decades the premier power-breakfast locale among movie dealmakers--around a meandering biomorphic floor plan with tables carefully positioned so that guests could be seen but not overheard. He also added the hotel’s four-story Crescent Wing of 1949 (named for the adjacent Crescent Drive, not its shape), a Modernist slab that suavely harmonizes with the original revivalist architecture. And Williams figuratively put his signature on the building with a new Beverly Hills Hotel logo in his own bold handwriting, a distinctive flourish still in use today.
This was a classic Williams “remodel” (to use the peculiar SoCal locution for remodeling). He skillfully, thriftily, and superficially gave passé properties a refreshed aura while leaving the old buildings behind his interventions largely intact. He repeated this successful strategy with later renovations such as the Ambassador Hotel in Hollywood and the El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs, which likewise gave his clients the maximum bang for their buck. His trick of placing an eye-filling Modernist cynosure at a building’s main entrance to divert attention was exemplified by the dramatic mushroom-shaped canopy he positioned at the Ambassador’s front door and the lengthy, swooping porte cochere he appended to the façade of El Mirador.
El Mirador Hotel, Palm Springs; remodeled by Paul Revere Williams
Julius Shulman/J. Paul Getty Trust/Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles
El Mirador Hotel, Palm Springs, California; remodeled by Paul Revere Williams, 1952–1953
In 1951 Williams was asked to design the tomb of Al Jolson, the popular entertainer known as “the king of blackface” for his hallmark minstrel routine, which he memorialized by singing “My Mammy” in the first feature-length talking picture, Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927). Jolson was buried at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, the veritable Père-Lachaise of Hollywood’s Jewish community. He was given the place of honor atop a steep slope at the center of the Stripped Classical mausoleum building Williams had designed in 1937.
To immortalize Jolson the architect erected a seventy-five-foot-high circular-domed marble pergola surrounded by six Streamline Moderne pilasters, and inserted a five-tier, 120-foot-long waterfall to cascade down the incline in front of it. If the effect is outrageously theatrical and grandiose, then so was Jolson himself, who is depicted here in a life-size bronze statue that mimics his familiar stage pose: down on one knee with arms outstretched, pleading to be loved. This funerary extravaganza also incorporates the ultimate LA status symbol—its own dedicated parking area.
Understandably, Williams was the go-to man for the few Black entertainers at the time who earned enough to commission a custom-designed house. But they, like the architect, faced severe restrictions on where they could live, no matter how much money they made. Bill Robinson, the tap dancer, actor, and singer best known by his nickname Bojangles, was the highest-paid Black performer in the US for decades. In 1943 he had Williams design a modest neo-Colonial house for him in what is now the Exposition Park section of Los Angeles near the USC campus, a neighborhood unencumbered by race covenants.
Two houses commissioned by radio performers represented opposite ends of the racial spectrum. In 1937 Williams built one for Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Jack Benny’s comedian sidekick and one of the best-compensated Black performers in America. It is still owned by his family, who, following Anderson’s instructions to use it for charitable purposes, rent portions to out-of-work entertainers. In the following year the architect created one of his larger residential designs for the white comedic actor Charles Correll, who played the Black title character Andy on the Amos ’n’ Andy radio show from 1928 to 1960. The series featured an all-white cast who affected thick Black dialect accents and bumbled through harebrained get-rich-quick schemes that inevitably failed. A TV sitcom version with an all-Black cast ran from 1951 to 1953, and though it was broadcast in reruns until 1966, was at last taken off the air after civil rights groups decried its gross caricatures and demeaning stereotypes—complaints that had been raised about the radio version as early as 1930.
Williams also maintained an abiding commitment to public housing. He assisted Hilyard Robinson (a fellow African-American architect) on the exemplary Langston Terrace Public Housing project of 1937 in Washington, D.C., which was sponsored by the New Deal’s Public Works Administration. Nearer to home in Los Angeles are his 400-unit Pueblo del Rio Public Housing of 1941–1942 in the Central-Alameda neighborhood and the 184-unit Hacienda Village Housing Project of 1942 in Watts (for both of which he was part of a design team along with Neutra). After World War II he was responsible for Nickerson Gardens of 1955 in Watts, the largest public housing development west of the Mississippi with 1,066 units. And his Berkeley Square subdivision of 1955 in Las Vegas, which comprised 148 privately owned houses, also had a strong social component: it was the first development of its sort created specifically for Blacks, who again felt the sting of housing discrimination as they migrated to work in the booming desert gambling mecca.
Williams’s belief that well-designed houses should be within the reach of all Americans prompted him to publish two books of plans that he was happy to have copied by others. The Small Home of Tomorrow (1945) presents thirty-eight stylistically varied schemes—with far-flung names such as the New Orleans, the Riviera, and the Shangri-la Cottage—while New Homes for Today (1946) offers thirty-three more, with options that range in size from a compact 940 square feet to an expansive 2,950 square feet. These charmingly evocative publications, which encapsulate the longing that housing-deprived Americans had for homes of their own in the postwar years, have been reissued in facsimile editions that convey a palpable sense of Williams’s irresistible salesmanship.
In 2017, thirty-seven years after his death, Williams was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects, its highest accolade, and joined such preeminent recipients as Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, and Louis Kahn. Williams’s award came three years after it was also posthumously bestowed on Julia Morgan (1872–1957), the first woman admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, best known for designing California’s Hearst Castle.
If the belated recognition of Morgan and Williams was an attempt to diversify the AIA Gold Medal laureates, it hasn’t helped much, for apart from them (as well as the Chinese-American I.M. Pei and the Japanese architects Kenzo Tange, Tadao Ando, and Fumihiko Maki), the 117-year-old award has since been given exclusively to white men and just one other woman—Denise Scott Brown, honored in 2016 with her partner and husband, Robert Venturi. Yet this imbalance shouldn’t be surprising, since only 2 percent of registered architects in the US today are Black. And while the number rises to 17 percent for women, that too seems scandalous, considering that as recently as 2018 women comprised 46 percent of students in American architecture schools, indicating a huge fall-off between higher education and professional practice.
The perseverance and achievement of Paul Revere Williams remain inspiring, and in retrospect appear as audacious as the corrective social goals of the early Modern Movement in architecture. This gifted American original’s embrace of widely divergent formal solutions for different functional purposes presaged the freer approaches that took hold in architecture only after his death, and he now can be seen not as a case for special pleading but a fearless forerunner of even more liberating attitudes yet to come.