Though known as a California architect, Paul R. Williams completed hundreds of projects across America and many were in Nevada. Williams’ work in Nevada spanned almost 40 years and included private residences and ranch houses, a Jockey Club for the ill-fated Las Vegas Park, roadside motels, hotel expansions, churches and apartments. Nevada's Wild-West life style seemed to inspire Williams’ creativity with unconventional ideas including a Las Vegas monorail system (1966) and Airform homes (or Bubble houses) with fellow California architect Wallace Neff. The proposed Bubble house development (early 1950s) was their solution to the chronic housing shortage in Las Vegas. As a recognized national expert on the small house, Williams was often hired by developers to create plans for homes that could be constructed quickly and inexpensively but still allowed customization by a home owner. In the 1940s Williams was asked to design a solution for another Nevada housing shortage but one with societal implications.
By the end of WWII the African American population in Las Vegas had expanded from 150 in the 1930s to over 3,000. (Hornsby. Black America. 2011) Confined by law and custom to the segregated Westside, better housing became an important political and social issue for black residents. By 1955 over 16,000 mostly African Americans lived in the 160-acre Westside area of Las Vegas. Returning African American veterans pressured the city for housing and used the new federal G.I. Bill to finance home ownership. The availability of Federal loan guarantees to support African American homeownership was a new development. "As recently as the '40s, most FHA-financed developments prohibited African American homeowners" from applying. (Atomic Ranch: Midcentury Marvels. Summer, 2011) Across the country private developers saw an opportunity to make money and began designing single-family subdivisions for an emerging African American middleclass. (The Louisiana Weekly. February 17, 2008)
In 1947 investors joined the City of Las Vegas to petition the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to develop a 40-acre parcel on the Westside for, “A new 2-bedroom project for colored people… with Federal Housing insured loans.” (Inter-Office Communication, January 8, 1948. Planning and Development, City of Las Vegas.) Early in the process the group had approached Williams to design the first group of 154 single-family homes. When the subdivision celebrated its grand opening in 1955 several things had changed (the financial backers and the name of the subdivision—Berkley Square), but Williams’ home designs remained constant.
Because of his war time experience, Williams understood navigating complex governmental design and planning regulations. He created two basic design choices (model A and model B) for Berkley Square. Though faced with strict FHA and VA design and quality standards, Williams was still able to create an appealing, family-friendly neighborhood supported by schools and businesses in a pedestrian-safe environment.
Williams' one-story designs for Berkley Square were inspired by the growing popularity of Cliff May’s California-style contemporary ranch house. The two models were basically the same house plan, but each buyer had a choice of exterior window treatment. An open carport with additional storage space, simple landscaping and a large back yard were all part of Williams’ design.
In 1954 when the subdivision was legally recorded at the City of Las Vegas, it had been renamed Berkley Square after one of the new investors, Thomas L. Berkley. African American Berkley had many interests in California. He was an attorney, a politically well-connected Oakland newspaper publisher and commercial/residential property developer. It is not known why he became involved with Berkley Square, but it was acknowledged that his active interest insured the completion of the Westside project.
Berkley Square was such an immediate success with home buyers (school teachers, ministers, business owners, government workers) that there was a waiting list for new construction. Charles I. West, the first black physician in southern Nevada, purchased two of the residences.
Berkley Square was added to the U.S. National Parks Service's National Register of Historic Places in 2009 as an example of a neighborhood of midcentury houses, designed by an important architect and built for African Americans. The sturdy, simple homes of Berkley Square changed the living standards and aspirations of African Americans residing in Las Vegas.
Largely intact, many of the homes are still owned by family members of the original buyers.
Thanks to Mella Harmon for her insights on Paul R. Williams in Nevada.