Paul Revere Williams was born in Los Angeles on February 18, 1894 to Lila Wright Williams and Chester Stanley Williams who had recently moved from Memphis with their young son, Chester, Jr. When Paul was two years old his father died, and two years later his mother died. The children were placed in separate foster homes. Paul was fortunate to grow up in the home of a foster mother who devoted herself to his education and to the development of his artistic talent.
At the turn of the 20th century, Los Angeles was a vibrant multi-ethnic environment. During Williams’ youth the California dream attracted people from the world over, and they mixed together with little prejudice. Williams later reported that he was the only African-American child in his elementary school, and at Polytechnic High School he was part of the ethnic mélange. However, in high school he experienced the first hint of racism when a teacher advised him against pursuing a career in architecture, because he would have difficulty attracting clients in the majority white community and the black community could not provide enough work.
Williams did not give up his goal. Confident in his strengths, he simultaneously pursued architectural education and professional experience with Los Angeles’ leading firms, never settling for less than perfection in his work and dignity in his relationships with clients and colleagues. Earning academic accolades, competition prizes and the respect of his employers, Williams was able to open his own practice in 1922 and become the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects in 1923.
During the 1920s and 1930s (including the depression, which had little effect on his firm), his great success was in designing homes for wealthy clients in the elite hillside subdivisions like Bel Air, Brentwood, and Beverly Hills. Sought by entertainment industry leaders, Williams became known as “Architect to the Hollywood Stars.” Although residential design remained an important aspect of his practice, commercial and institutional commissions became increasingly significant as did his work beyond Southern California, across the nation and the world. In the course of his five-decade career, Williams designed approximately 3000 buildings, served on many municipal, state and federal commissions, was active in political and social organizations and earned the admiration and respect of his peers. In 1957, he was the first African American elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.
Paul R. Williams retired from practice in 1973 and died in 1980 at the age of 85.
Top image: Paul R. Williams, portrait, nd. Security Pacific Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
Bottom image: Paul R. Williams, portrait, 1963. Photographer: Merge Studios, Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.