Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
Paul Revere Williams: The AIA’s First African-American Member was an Architect to the Stars
AIA Memphis and the University of Memphis are working to bring the story of this barrier-shattering architect to new audiences
By Mike Singer
An African-American orphan born in the 19th century who lived in a time and place that allowed him to transcend the demographic liabilities that burdened entire generations after him, Paul Revere Williams, FAIA, became the first African-American member of the AIA in 1923.
By 1929, with the astoundingly expensive commission of $500,000 for horseracing entrepreneur Jack Atkins’ home, he had risen to the top of a then-exclusionary profession, and he would continue to do so by designing homes for Hollywood’s golden age A-list: Tyrone Power, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Jennifer Jones, Lon Chaney Sr., and Johnny Weissmuller (the movies’ Tarzan), to name just a few. Williams (1894–1980) became the first African-American Fellow of the AIA in 1957, and Beverly Hills entrepreneurs engaged him to bring his residential panache to their enterprises as well, including the Music Corporation of America building, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the Beverly Hills Hotel.
But his 65-year career wasn’t all glamour. Today, thanks to the research efforts of the University of Memphis and AIA Memphis’ Paul Revere Williams Project, the world is learning about his designs for public housing projects, hospitals, churches, courthouses, and college campuses. Williams not only set the stage for the popularly portrayed, lavish lifestyles of Hollywood matinee idols, but also helped popularize mid-century small home design for the masses, and inescapably became a role model for early diversity efforts in architecture.
AIArchitect caught up with Leslie Luebbers, director of the Paul Williams Project and executive director of the Art Museum of the University of Memphis, after her recent Modernism Week presentation about the architect.
AIArchitect: African Americans were typically trained in skilled building trades, not architecture. At a time of intense racial segregation and discrimination, how did Williams break through these barriers?
Luebbers: He was an orphan and he was black—huge liabilities—but Williams had every personal attribute for success: talent, intelligence, education, persistence, grace, good looks, social and business acumen, and a prodigious capacity for what we now call multitasking. By all accounts, he was also a very nice guy, and a great team player. Luck granted a couple of gifts that were entirely beyond his control. He was born in Los Angeles when it was one of the fastest growing cities in the world, and where Jim Crow America [era] blacks were least burdened by prejudice, which Williams first encountered in his late teens. After his initial shock, this revelation helped guide his program for success: Work insanely hard, leave nothing to chance, and leverage every opportunity.
Immediately after high school, in 1912, Williams began a series of internships and jobs with firms specializing in planning and architecture while enrolling in art school drawing classes and the Los Angeles Beaux Arts Studio. His talent and hard work attracted attention from principals, who often became mentors and lifelong friends. One of them, the residential designer Reginald D. Johnson, urged him to study architectural engineering, [and] he attended the University of Southern California from 1916 to 1919. In 1920, Williams, just 26, was appointed to the first Los Angeles City Planning Commission, probably with the support of one of his mentors, maybe Wilbur D. Cook, his first employer and a well-known planner. This was the beginning of his life in public service, and importantly, being on the inside track politically.
John C. Austin, principal of one of Los Angeles’ most powerful and prestigious architectural firms, noticed Williams’ successful submissions to several architectural competitions. In 1921, he offered Williams a senior position, and sponsored his application to AIA.
Where did you find all this archival material?
We found most information in the public domain—newspapers, magazines, public records, library photo collections. Thanks to Karen Hudson, Williams’ granddaughter, I had the unusual privilege of reviewing the Williams family’s collection [of artifacts], which includes everything from single-sheet presentation watercolors to multiple archival boxes filled with construction documents.
Tragically, the text documents from Williams’ practice—letters, contracts, notes, calendars, and agendas—went up in smoke during the 1992 L.A. riots. The text material is what would have allowed a historian [to get] inside Williams’ professional life, and that’s now impossible.
How did you and AIA Memphis get so involved with a Los Angeles–born architect?
[It] began as a joint effort of AIA Memphis and the University of Memphis. It was first conceived as an AIA 150th-anniversary project. Williams’ parents were both from Memphis. His father was a waiter at the Peabody Hotel, and his parents moved to Los Angeles in 1893. Both his parents died when Williams was very young, and a woman who belonged to their church raised him.
In late 2010 at the University of Memphis Art Museum, we produced Paul Revere Williams, American Architect, the first museum exhibit ever on his life and work. Since then, we have added to the website, which includes an interactive timeline of his life, news archives, and a gallery of his projects. We are now completing K–12 education modules to be uploaded this spring that link to the other website features.
How will you use Williams’ work to teach kids about architecture?
AIA Memphis has a big commitment to architectural education because the profession is overwhelmingly white, and Memphis is over 60 percent black, with a non-white public school population of 87 percent. Meanwhile, architecture shows up in the national standards as a part of visual arts, but studies have shown that art teachers are wary of architecture because they are rarely taught it themselves.
Our idea was to give art teachers a way to teach basic architectural concepts using Williams’ inspiring story as a point of departure and his buildings as examples. The program is meant to help students think about architecture, and to imagine how they could follow in Williams’ footsteps to become powerful and admired designers, or at least aware and critical citizens.
In Palm Springs, Williams helped design the Town and Country Center Restaurant. Some want to tear this 1948 building down. Why should it be saved?
The Town and Country Center has been allowed to deteriorate for years and is in terrible shape, but you can still understand how in [this] desert city it was a pocket oasis of dramatic green and plays of light and shadow. It was recognized as exciting architecture when built, and published in Architectural Record with Julius Shulman’s [Hon. AIA] photographs. From Shulman’s photos, you can see how delightful an experience it would have been to come in from the narrow axis of the street and see the gardens open up. The Palm Springs Preservation Foundation has been successful in halting a demolition for now. Its long-term future is still uncertain.
How did Williams promote Modernism with his mass-market housing designs? Aesthetically, at least, many of these projects look pretty traditional.
In his architectural pattern books [New Homes for Today and The Small Home of Tomorrow], he anticipated the application of industrial technologies to home construction—plastics, aluminum, prefabrication, for example. He predicted dining rooms would go away, and that there would be continuous indoor-outdoor living spaces. Bathrooms would be manufactured in prefab units and divided into toilet, bathing, grooming, and dressing areas. He knew that a lot of people wanted a modern home but didn’t necessarily want to live in a Modern-looking house. So in much of his residential work, he applied Modern thinking inside traditional Tudor, Colonial, and Federal-style homes, as well as in contemporary designs.
And he wasn’t just concerned about private housing: In the late ’30s, with African-American designer Hilyard Robinson, Williams designed Langston Terrace in Washington, D.C., the capital’s first federally funded housing project.
Williams was interested in encouraging people of modest means to use architects’ designs for their houses. How successful was he?
Williams’ two architectural pattern books provided design ideas to the masses at the end of World War II, when there was a grotesque housing shortage. People were flocking to cities, and the architectural profession didn’t want the government and developers to leave architects out of the solution and carpet the nation with cheap boxes. Williams’ guides acquainted people with houses averaging 1,500 square feet. The books included forms for ordering complete sets of working drawings for $60 and $75. He believed in homeownership as a way for people, particularly black families, to move securely into the middle class. He designed dozens of subdivisions, including some specifically marketed to black clients, like Carver Manor in Los Angeles.
[An] original owner of a Carver house who is now in her 90s remembers Williams coming around to check on contractors and fussing at them about finish details. He [wanted] the owners to be proud [of their houses], and they still are.
Visit the AIA’s Diversity and Inclusion website.
Visit the Committee on Design Knowledge Community website on AIA KnowledgeNet.
Visit the Palm Springs Modernism Week website.