The True Hollywood Star: The Legacy of Paul R. Williams

By Kathryn Davis Paul R. Williams may not be a household name like Frank Sinatra or Lucille Ball, but his contributions to the architectural world are undeniable. This groundbreaking black architect, with a career spanning...

By Kathryn Davis

Paul R. Williams may not be a household name like Frank Sinatra or Lucille Ball, but his contributions to the architectural world are undeniable. This groundbreaking black architect, with a career spanning five decades, deserves more recognition for his immense influence on both architecture and interior design. Unfortunately, the field of architecture has not done enough to celebrate the achievements of black architects like Williams. Despite his extraordinary portfolio of over 3000 projects, he was only awarded the prestigious AIA Gold Medal posthumously in 2017, nearly 40 years after his death.

Overcoming Adversity

Williams' journey to success was not without its challenges. Raised in a time of extreme racial discrimination, he faced personal tragedies and discouragement along the way. Orphaned at a young age and separated from his brother, Williams defied the odds and graduated with honors as the only black student in his elementary school. Despite being discouraged by a teacher to pursue architecture, citing the lack of white clients, Williams persevered. He became a certified building contractor in 1915, a licensed Californian architect in 1921, and the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1923.

Hollywood Connections

Williams' impact on the architectural landscape is most evident in his work for the Hollywood elite. He designed homes for Hollywood icons such as Sharon Tate, Lucille Ball, and Frank Sinatra. His renovations of the legendary Beverly Hills Hotel further solidified his reputation in Hollywood circles. Williams' intuitive understanding of the styles and needs of his clients made him the go-to architect for the movie industry during the Great Depression. While other architects struggled to find work, Williams thrived, designing over 36 significant Hollywood homes by 1934.

Innovative Design and Interior Expertise

Williams' architectural legacy goes beyond his stunning residential designs. He was a master at blending different architectural styles, incorporating elements of Colonial Revival, Spanish Revival, Baroque, and Mid-century modern. His attention to detail extended to the interiors, where he collaborated closely with decorators to create cohesive and functional spaces. Williams recognized the importance of integrated design, considering furniture plans and the client's use of the home. He even authored pattern books that made beautiful and diverse home designs accessible to all budgets.

Franchon Beerup House Paul Revere Williams' Franchon Beerup House - an early home design featured in Architectural Digest.

A Remarkable Trailblazer

Williams' accomplishments are even more remarkable considering the racism he faced both within his profession and society at large. Despite his immense talent, he was often on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination. Williams had to learn to sketch upside down so as not to make his clients uncomfortable, a testament to his determination to succeed. He became a role model for future black architects, proving that talent and perseverance could overcome racial barriers.

Honoring a Forgotten Legacy

It is disheartening to realize that many art history and architecture enthusiasts have never heard of Paul R. Williams. This oversight reflects a larger issue of underrepresentation and lack of recognition for black architects. By examining the overlooked contributions of architects like Williams and acknowledging their rightful place in the canon, we can begin to rectify the historical imbalance. Williams' dedication to his craft, innovative design concepts, and ability to excel despite adversity should be celebrated and serve as a source of inspiration for the next generation of architects.

Editor's Note: Images have been included to enhance the reading experience and to highlight the architectural masterpieces designed by Paul R. Williams.

Caption: Paul Williams in front of the Theme Building at LAX Airport (FN US Modernist.org)

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