"Without having the wish to "show them," I developed a fierce desire to "show myself." I wanted to vindicate every ability I had. I wanted to acquire new abilities. I wanted to prove that I, as an individual, deserved a place in the world. 1” – Paul R. Williams (I894-1980)
Legendary African-American architect and pioneer, Paul R. Williams is the magnum opus.
Just as he created some of the most recognizable buildings, homes, and landmarks in Los Angeles and beyond, he carefully curated a life that was a testament to the principles and values that were cultivated in him over time. He lived life through a lens of curiosity, creative vision, and courage that was fueled by the love of his family, community, and commitment to Black people. His body of work includes more than 3000 designs, “from housing developments in South Los Angeles to Bel Air mansions, from YMCA buildings to the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel (Polo Lounge, the Crescent Wing and the Pink Palace's signature scripted logo is based on Williams’ handwriting) – schools, churches, hospitals, the LA County Courthouse, LAX theme building, retail stores, scores of major businesses and small homes.2” His spirit is woven into the fabric of Los Angeles and his legacy; an undeniable thread ordained to unite people. His artistry presents itself as an act of reverence. The kind that can be felt in every curve, scallop, alcove, elaborate staircase, and distinct style in the spaces he constructed.
If you’ve ever experienced a Paul R. Williams home, then you know his work reflected the ever-evolving zeitgeist, but that which could only be interpreted through his unique flair. Karen E. Hudson, executive director of the Paul R. Williams Collection, founder of the Paul R. Williams Scholarship & Education Fund, and official biographer of her grandfather, maintains that “He led and taught by example. He lived his life every day to show us more than anything else to use our imagination for creative problem-solving. He never competed with anyone. He only competed with himself. So, when people talk about how did he get this commission? How did he get to know all these Hollywood people? There was no formula. He led by being himself. And I think that he thought that if he made himself happy, he was doing what he ought to be doing.”
Living in that authenticity allowed him to blaze a trail of many firsts. He was the first licensed Black architect west of the Mississippi. He was the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the first Black member to be inducted into the AIA's College of Fellows. He was also the first African American to be a consultant architect for Bank of America. He proudly wore this title because he specifically wanted to open doors for other Black architects.
As of late, those firsts continue to usher in a renaissance of sorts. In 2020, the USC School of Architecture and the Getty Research Institute jointly acquired the Paul R. Williams Architecture archive from the Williams Estate. Solange Knowles recently debuted her glassware collection in partnership with glassblower Jason McDonald and her Saint Heron imprint in one of his commissioned homes. Paris Hilton mentions Williams by name in her self-entitled 2023 memoir when recalling the Georgian-style mansion that belongs to her grandparents, Barron and Marilyn Hilton, and set the backdrop for her 2021 nuptials.There is a collaboration with the Getty Museum in the works to release a young adult graphic novel on Williams. On October the 11th, the Paul R. Williams Foundation, along with the landmark Beverly Hills Hotel and AIA, will be hosting their inaugural gala to raise funds and awareness for the newly launched, Paul R. Williams Scholarship & Education Fund. It is all a welcomed shift for enthusiasts like Janna Ireland, photographer and author of Regarding Paul R. Williams: A Photographer's View, who believe that he has been "criminally under-recognized and underappreciated.3"
For those readers who may be learning about him for the first time, just know that at some point or another you have seen, driven by, walked past, been in or heard of one of his solo or collaborative creations. Angelus Funeral Home, Nickerson Gardens, First A.M.E Church, Baldwin Hills Mall, Arrowhead Springs Hotel & Spa, Saks Fifth Avenue, Sunset Plaza, Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building, and Woodrow Wilson High School are just a handful of the sites that may ring a bell. Known to many as the “Architect to the Stars,” Williams’ client list included celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Bill “Bojangles' Robinson, Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Quinn and Danny Thomas. As a matter of fact, he designed the world-renowned St. Jude Hospital, and although he did not make it a habit to befriend his clients, he and Thomas became good friends and upon his passing in 1980, found Thomas eulogizing him at his funeral.
“There is strength in knowing that you’re making a difference and you’re opening doors,” explains Hudson who has not only dedicated her life to upholding her grandfather’s legacy but whose published works Paul R. Williams, Architect: A Legacy of Style, Paul R. Williams, Classic Hollywood Style, The Will and the Way, Paul R. Williams, Architect have embodied his quiet resistance, advocacy, influence and understated elegance to educate the masses. “My responsibility has been to get the story correct. To get it right so that as a community and as a people we get credit for what we did. We must tell our own stories.”
Hudson recalls an incredibly classy and stylish man whose family was his world. One who was always thinking about the community and how he could impact it. While the world experienced him as the consummate professional, to her, he was just her grandfather who would spoil her and her brother. When she began this journey at 30, nothing could quite prepare her both emotionally and physically for the rollercoaster she would embark on. The misinformation that was out there about Williams, the racism she faced, and the utter disregard for preserving his work have all been difficult to swallow. She is however careful to note that no matter what she has endured, it was nothing like what her grandparents had to go through. These are the things that keep her going.
One can also look to Williams’ upbringing to gain deeper insight into his character.Williams' parents, Chester and Lila Williams migrated from Memphis,Tennessee in 1893 to Los Angeles during a time when there was a national campaign touting California as a place of wellness and rest. His folks soon settled in and earned a living by opening a fruit stand on Olivera Street. Williams was born in Downtown Los Angeles in 1894 and by 1898 both his parents had died of tuberculosis. He had an older brother named Chester Jr. five years his senior who was raised by a separate foster family in Hollywood, but he ultimately succumbed to pneumonia and died. An orphan at the age of 4, he was raised but never adopted by his foster mother, Emily P. Clarkson, who had no children of her own. Clarkson encouraged him from early on that he could do and be anything. That encouragement made a significant impact on his life. When Williams shared his dreams of becoming an architect with one of his white teachers, he was told that Black people would never be able to afford him, and white people would never hire him – that did not deter him because of Clarkson’s influence. “He did not know any other architects and certainly was not in any position to know any Black architects. I just know that he wanted to always be someone his parents were proud of,” says Hudson.
In 1912, he graduated from Polytechnic High School, and in 1916 he graduated from the University of Southern California (USC). In 1917 he married the love of his life, Della Mae Givens. And in 1922, he opened his own firm, Paul R. Williams and Associates in the Stock Exchange Building in downtown Los Angeles and eventually became licensed in five states. These moves would set his career on an upward trajectory. Despite his immense success and talent, he was not allowed to sit next to his white clients, so he learned how to draw upside down. Although he could afford it, he could not live in the same neighborhoods in which he was commissioned because of the color of his skin. The spaces he helped imagine were the same spaces he could not sit, stay, or eat at. “The unyielding inner strength that must come with having a positive attitude is something that my grandmother also helped him sustain. But he always kept his eyes on the prize so that he could focus on whatever commission it was that he wanted to get.”
Hudson’s grandmother influenced everything he did. He would never have been as successful if it wasn’t for her. She made sure that he was always comfortable. That their home was a sanctuary. A place where he could breathe and not worry if someone was watching his every move. She kept Williams grounded in the community. She was also the catalyst in Hudson’s biography work. Since 1914, she had clippings of everything she saw mentioned on her husband. She had boxes of articles that nobody had ever seen or knew about. Without that, none of this history would be possible.
The inaugural gala is more than just an event, but a call to action. According to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), a nonprofit that helps establish state guidelines for exams and licensure, reported that as of 2022 there were 121,603 licensed architects working in the U.S. and only 2% — 2,492 — are Black. Of those, only 566 are Black women. That's under one-half of one percent. Those figures encompass licensed architects who identify as Black or African American. All facts that Hudson knows her grandfather would be heartbroken about.
The Fund was created to honor William’s legacy by ensuring that a new generation of architects of color will be empowered to use their vision and creativity to design a better future for our communities. It will provide financial support and mentoring to students of color on their journey to professional licensing, with scholarships for fourth and fifth-year architecture students attending one of the seven Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) offering an accredited architecture program, as well as at USC, Mr. Williams’ alma mater.
“I don’t want it to be all about my grandfather. I want him to inspire. I want him to be a source of encouragement. I want to celebrate him and the other creative thinkers who are out there. Our K-12 and HBCU programs aren’t just talking about him, and it’s not just talking about architects, but creative people in general. This takes it back to our mission: to instill in young people the importance of using your imagination for creative problem-solving. The Fund will also help other K-12 programs that exist that are doing good things but are having trouble getting funding.”
“On a regular basis people say to me that this is your gift to your grandfather. It has never been my gift to him. It was his gift to me. He had a dream. He was a gentleman and a gentle man. He built relationships. He built bridges. For myself and my brother, we have never strayed from the knowledge that our grandparents on both sides and our parents blessed us with so much. A rich heritage and legacy that all we can do is try to give something back.”Paul R. Williams is not sequestered to one moment in history, but a continuum of the great work that was produced. The work can only be summed up as the life that Williams willed for and made way for himself, his family, and a world that deserved his artistry.