2017 Gold Medal Recipient
The Gold Medal is the AIA’s highest annual honor, recognizing individuals whose work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture.
With a client list that reads like a who’s who of Hollywood history, Paul Revere Williams developed an incredible portfolio of nearly 3,000 beautiful buildings during his five-decade career that was marked with a number of broken barriers. An architect whose work carried the glamour of classic Southern California style to the rest of the world, Williams was the among the first black students admitted to the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, the first black architect to become a member of the AIA, and, later, the first black member to be inducted into the Institute’s College of Fellows.
“Our profession desperately needs more architects like Paul Williams,” wrote William J. Bates, FAIA, in his support of William’s nomination for the AIA Gold Medal. “His pioneering career has encouraged others to cross a chasm of historic biases. I can’t think of another architect whose work embodies the spirit of the Gold Medal better. His recognition demonstrates a significant shift in the equity for the profession and the institute.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1894, Williams was orphaned by the age of four and was later raised by a foster mother who valued his education and encouraged his artistic development. Despite a high school teacher’s attempts to dissuade him from pursuing architecture for fear that he wouldn’t be able to pull clients from the predominantly white community while the black community would not sustain his practice, Williams persevered. Confident in his abilities, Williams garnered accolades in architectural competitions early in his career while developing tactics like rendering his drawings upside down so that his white clients could view his work from across the table rather than by sitting next to him.
“His obstacles were great, but nothing could extinguish his brilliance. Unable to participate in the ‘old boys’ network that boosted the careers of most architects of the day, he found ways to distinguish himself and garner clients,” wrote Karen Hudson in her book Paul R. Williams Classic Hollywood Style.
Williams opened his practice in the early 1920s when Southern California’s real estate market was booming. His early practice focused both on small, affordable houses for new homeowners and revival-style homes for his more affluent clients. As his reputation swelled, so, too, did his client list. Williams’ practice expanded and among the 2,000 homes he designed include graceful private residences for legendary figures in business and entertainment such as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Lon Chaney, Frank Sinatra, and Barron Hilton.
While Williams was more than comfortable with the historical styles endemic to Southern California, his fluency in modernism is reflected in the work outside of his residential practice. Among his number of schools, public buildings, and churches are American architectural landmarks, including the Palm Springs Tennis Center (1946) designed with A. Quincy Jones; the space age LAX Theme Building (1961) designed with William Pereira, Charles Luckman, and Welton Becket; and his 1949 renovation of the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel. Eight of Williams’ works have been named to the National Register of Historic Places.
Regardless of his struggles as a young architect, Williams is a figure whose accomplishments vaulted him into the vanguard of the profession. He stands as one of America’s foremost architects who was able to nimbly adapt to shifts in architectural fashion until his retirement in 1973.
“Without having the wish to ‘show them,’ I developed a fierce desire to ‘show myself,’” Williams wrote in his 1937 essay for American Magazine, I Am a Negro. “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.”