Two Getty curators chat about some of their favorite Paul R. Williams buildings and the architect’s extraordinary career.
Architect Paul Revere Williams (1894–1980) designed everything from lavish homes for Hollywood stars to churches for Black congregations—more than 3,000 structures in all. Yet many Angelenos drive by his buildings every day with no idea who designed them, or that Williams used a precise architectural language to convey function and mission.
The archive of this prolific architect, comprising several thousand sketches, blueprints, and project notes, was jointly acquired by the Getty Research Institute and the University of Southern California School of Architecture last year. Getty and USC will collaborate to make the archive accessible to the public, and will also partner on exhibitions, programs, and publications about Williams’ work.
In the meantime, the Getty Research Institute’s Maristella Casciato, senior curator of architecture, and LeRonn P. Brooks, associate curator for Modern and Contemporary Collections, recently met over Zoom to discuss six iconic L.A. landmarks designed by Williams. Here is their conversation—so that you might be inspired to cruise around L.A. on a warm spring afternoon and admire Williams’ modernist, Spanish Colonial Revival, and other beautiful buildings for yourselves.
Maristella Casciato: I first learned of Paul Williams through the 2013 Getty Museum exhibition OverDrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990, which surveyed L.A.’s unique urban landscape and architectural innovations. I saw one of Williams’ drawings—a plan for the First African Methodist Episcopal (First AME) Church—and I was immediately impressed by his masterly control of the interior space and facades, which he articulates via a zig-zag movement of the surfaces.
LeRonn Brooks: Williams’ parents had been members of the church since they moved to Los Angeles in 1893. He grew up in First AME, was married there, and was eventually a Board Trustee of the church.
I found out about Paul Williams in a book when I was researching African American artists as a college undergraduate. His archive will no doubt help us have a more in-depth understanding of the vast amount of work he’s done, and how important he was, and is, to American architecture. Williams is pretty much at the root of the tree of African American architects.
MC: And he was an Angeleno. Sometimes you associate African American history with other regions of the United States—the South or the East Coast. But working in L.A. was the best route for this young, inventive, and extremely skilled draftsman. His career started at the beginning of the ’20s, a time when L.A. attracted an amazing group of modern talents. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright came from Chicago and left his signature on a group of innovative residences. Europeans like Rudolph Schindler came to work with him. L.A. was offering them a vibrant scene. Williams thrived in that scene not only because of his personality and extremely sophisticated aesthetic, but also because he supported the African American community that proliferated in Central L.A.
LB: In the late 1800s and early 1900s, you had very small communities of African Americans on the West Coast, and those histories are lesser known than histories of Black people migrating to the Midwest, the Northeast, and along the Atlantic seaboard. The story of Williams’ life here in Los Angeles is invigorating, and I hope once more people know about it, they will want to learn about the long tradition of African American communities on the West Coast as well as his prominent place in his community and the field of architecture.
Architecture, as you know, Maristella, is a public art. These aren’t paintings on an easel or sculptures in a studio; these are buildings in which people work or live. From his patrons to construction crews in the field, Williams had to establish both firm and dynamic relations to see his plans through. Architecture, among other things, is about space. As an African American living during a period of legal racial segregation, and designing homes in areas in which he could not live, there were also psychological hurdles to overcome in order to get the work done with excellence and to the best possible standards. And that’s exactly what he did.
There’s also the issue of what it meant to be an African American architect during the 1920s, the era of de jure segregation—legally enforced separation of groups of people. To be an architect you need social access to a client base, and his client base was largely not African American. He worked for private clients at a scale and expense level at which African Americans were disproportionately excluded. Which meant that he needed the social skills to navigate larger public commissions and the more intimate commissions—homes designed for Frank Sinatra, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, and other great Hollywood stars.
Here you have this architect who was debunking segregation and mastering this craft in a white-dominated field, and doing it to the best degree possible.
MC: Think of his work on the Beverly Hills Hotel—an epicenter for Hollywood’s elite.
LB: And he had a power to design spaces that fostered intimacy. He designed rooms there that catered to the kinds of personalities that need intimacy. People who need quiet and a place to contemplate their lives, such as the hotel’s Crescent Wing and redesigned Polo Lounge.
The hotel became popular in Hollywood because its rooms were spaces where one could confide with oneself.
But what did it mean for an African American architect to be immersed in Hollywood’s culture, and also to be grounded in his own community? He would have gone into majority white spaces knowing he wasn’t just doing it for himself. I think he would understand that he was absolutely a civil rights figure, and that with every project he himself was a bridge between communities. Every accomplishment provided a kind of prideful reflection on his community—it wasn’t just for him. It is astounding to imagine the weight on his shoulders, but it’s also invigorating to know that he lived up to the challenge and excelled.
MC: He lived up to that challenge from the very beginning of his work. As an architectural historian I look at one of his very first achievements, the 28th Street YMCA in South Central L.A., dated 1927–28, and I think about the young kids or the adults crossing the threshold of that building. One main entrance, no hierarchy; everything around the guests and visitors would express grandeur and a sense of welcoming and encouragement.
LB: For African American communities around the country, YMCAs were important meeting spaces for educational lectures, recreational activities, social clubs, exhibitions, and other cultural and political events. That Williams added meaningful details, such as inspiring bas-relief panels with busts of African American heroes such as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, was no small gesture.
MC: Williams’s YMCA design also gets me thinking of the inspiring L.A. brick buildings from the end of the 19th to the early 20th century. The building holds the imprint of architect Louis Sullivan, Chicago’s influential father of modernism, whose search for dignity expressed through architecture signaled openness to everybody. And so here, a completely new community was allowed to step over that threshold into a solemn, classical building.
Twenty years later Williams designed the striking Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building for the Black community. It was the largest Black-owned insurance company in the western United States. One looks at this building and thinks of Paris in 1925. The Art Deco detailing, the very tall windows, the corner—not a sharp corner, but an inviting one.
LB: What did it mean to the African American community that this structure actually existed, that the company actually existed? During a time when African Americans could not easily get health insurance, the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company was crucial to making healthcare affordable and accessible to them and to others facing forms of racial or economic discrimination. On top of that, the company chose an African American architect, and one of the most famous architects in America, to design a new building that would embody the company’s principles, morals, and mission. The company knew what that would mean to the African American community.
MC: And when you select such a modern architectural language, you are not looking toward the past, you are looking toward the future. Avoiding rhetoric, the company’s board of directors sends a message to the new generations about its economic robustness and soundness.
LB: The range of architectural language he used is astounding; as is the range of structures he designed or redesigned. From residential homes to company offices to hotels. Williams’s mausoleum in Hillside Memorial Park is a terrific example of his virtuosity and attention to detail. In particular, he created intimate places where natural light enlivens the structure and draws attention to its many stylistic elements, such as cursive lines that suggest the duration of time. In this way, his structures also have a philosophical bent.
MC: And let’s talk about LAX. From 1960 to 1965, Williams was a member of the joint-venture office for the new LAX airport, which symbolized the city’s embrace of the 20th century “jet age” and became world-renowned for its futuristic appeal. Some of the architects who designed LAX were directly involved in the early development of Disneyland. The two projects run in parallel.
LB: I would hope that future generations would be inspired by his work, his life story, and the kind of fortitude and persistence that he demonstrated throughout his career. I hope that people get to know Paul Williams, his importance to American society, and also the kinds of brilliance we can witness by studying his structures. And I hope young people get a sense that they are, or can be, in the living tradition of this pioneer.
MC: USC holds Williams’ archive and is in the process of making it available to anyone who’s interested in exploring his architectural achievements. In the meantime, though, people can easily drive from one of his buildings to another, seeing them in person. Most of Williams’ public buildings are accessible; he designed them for a new egalitarian society, a desegregated society.
Consider Los Angeles an open-air museum, to which Williams has added many masterpieces.