Paul Revere Williams, FAIA (1894-1980), was a trailblazing architect whose career spanned more than five decades and encompassed more than 3,000 designed structures. In 1923, he became the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and in 1957, he was the first Black member to be inducted into the Institute’s College of Fellows.
Born February 18, 1894, in Los Angeles, Mr. Williams was orphaned at the age of four and was raised by a devoted foster mother who encouraged his talent. By the time he graduated high school, he knew he wanted to pursue a career in architecture, and despite the racial barriers of the era, he forged ahead, studying at USC and the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design.
In 1920, Mr. Williams received an appointment to the inaugural Los Angeles City Planning Commission, and the following year, he became a certified architect. In 1923, he established his own practice during Southern California’s real estate boom.
Williams designed nearly 2,000 homes in Southern California, where he became favored by affluent business leaders and earned renown as “architect to the stars,” designing residences for celebrities such as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and Frank Sinatra. A committed civic leader, he also made significant contributions to affordable housing, public projects, and various institutional buildings. During the 1940s, his redesign of Saks Fifth Avenue and renovation of the Beverly Hills Hotel are among his signature projects. Eight of his works have been named to the National Register of Historic Places.
Williams displayed exceptional resilience as he navigated the business and social mores of his time. For white clients who might have been uneasy sitting next to a Black man, he developed the skill of drawing upside down, so he could sketch from the opposite side of the table. And despite having designed residences all over the world, it was not until 1951 that he was able to build his own residence in an area of Los Angeles that heretofore had been off-limits to Black homeowners due to restrictive covenants.
Williams received numerous accolades throughout his career, including the AIA Award of Merit, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, and USC’s Distinguished Alumni Award. In 2017, he was posthumously bestowed with the AIA's 2017 Gold Medal, the organization’s highest honor, making him the first Black recipient of this prestigious award.
After retiring in 1973, Mr. Williams passed away in 1980 at the age of 85. His lasting legacy of style and profound impact on the field of architecture continue to inspire future generations.
The Paul R. Williams Collection was established by Mr. Williams’ estate to preserve, honor and celebrate his legacy. The majority of Mr. Williams’ existing body of work, recently acquired by the University of Southern California and the Getty Museum, is now housed at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles.
This collection, currently being cataloged, comprises original plans, photographs, renderings, news articles, speeches, writings, business records and interviews, spanning six decades from the 1920s to the 1970s. As custodians of his inspirational journey, the family continues to promote awareness and education about Mr. Williams as an architect, as well as his tireless efforts to improve his community and his hometown of Los Angeles.
For years, we have sought to use his life experience to inspire and empower future generations. Though he passed away over forty years ago, we continue to recognize his eminent role in shaping the built world of Los Angeles. His innovative spirit, meticulous attention to detail, and his enduring sense of grace and understated elegance shine through countless projects across the city’s architectural landscape.
Everywhere you turn, from housing developments in South Los Angeles to Bel Air mansions, from YMCA buildings to the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel – schools, churches, hospitals, the LA County Courthouse, LAX theme building, retail stores, scores of major businesses and small homes – his brilliance continues to shine.
As we mark 100 years since Williams became the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), we remain deeply concerned by the fact that only 2% of U.S. licensed architects today are African American. It has always been our goal and mission to honor Mr. Williams’ impact on the field of architecture by making decisions that reflect his values. To that end, the Collection is preparing to launch a Scholarship and Education Fund in his name. We believe there is no better way to honor his legacy than by ensuring that a new generation of architects of color will be empowered to use their vision and creativity to design a better future for our communities.
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