During an age when racial prejudice ran strong, Paul R. Williams overcame barriers and became a favored architect in southern California.
February 18, 1894
January 23, 1980
Paul Williams became famous for his role in designing the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport
. Although the iconic, futuristic public structure is high profile architecture, Williams designed over 2000 private homes in Southern California—many of the most beautiful houses in Hollywood. Architect A. Quincy Jones
worked with Williams from 1939 to 1940.
Paul Williams was orphaned when he was four, but his artistic talents were supported and encouraged by his new foster family. His non-Black public school teachers, however, gave little encouragement to Williams, citing the perceived difficulties of a "Negro" pursuing an architecture career within a largely white community. Nevertheless, he enrolled in engineering school at the University of Southern California and won an important architecture competition when he was only 25. When he was 28, he opened his own practice.
While there is no one distinctive "look" to his buildings, Paul Williams became known for designs that were stylized and elegant. The architect borrowed ideas from the past without using excessive ornamentation. According to one critic, Paul Williams was "the last word in elegant traditionalism."
As an African-American, Paul Williams faced many social and economic barriers. Williams' clients were mostly white. "In the moment that they met me and discovered they were dealing with a Negro, I could see many of them freeze," he wrote in American Magazine. "My success during those first few years was founded largely upon my willingness — anxiety would be a better word — to accept commissions which were rejected as too small by other, more favored, architects."
Being Black forced Paul Williams to develop salesmanship and become politically active. He joined the Los Angeles Planning Commission and he became the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). In 1957, he was the first Black elected to the prestigious AIA College of Fellows (FAIA).
Books by Paul Williams:
- The Small Home of Tomorrow by Paul R. Williams, 2006 reissue of a 1940s book
- New Homes for Today by Paul R. Williams, 2006 reissue of a 1940s book
"If I allow the fact that I am a Negro to checkmate my will to do, now, I will inevitably form the habit of being defeated."
Learn More About Paul R. Williams:
Although few documents from his practice have survived, architectural scholars have compiled extensive records of Paul Williams' life and works, including contracts, letters from clients, plans, and materials related to specific projects.
Photographs, bibliographies, and other resources are posted online by the Paul R. Williams Project, coordinated by AIA Memphis, the University of Memphis, and other organizations.
Books by Karen Hudson:
Author Karen E. Hudson, the granddaughter of the architect, has been documenting Williams' life and work. Her books include:
- Paul R Williams, Architect: a legacy of styleby Karen E. Hudson, Rizzoli, 1993
The Will and the Way: Paul R. Williams, Architect by Karen E. Hudson, Rizzoli, 1994 (for ages 8-12)
- Paul R. Williams: Classic Hollywood Style by Karen E. Hudson, Rizzoli, 2012
Articles About Williams:
- Karen Hudson's 2012 book was discussed in the National Public Radio story "A Trailblazing Black Architect Who Helped Shape L.A." by Karen Grigsby Bates (NPR, June 22, 2012).
- "Williams the Conqueror" by Shashank Bengali, Trojan Family Magazine, University of Southern California (USC), Spring 2004
- Distinguished at Every Curve by Dave Weinstein on Eichler Network Online