On an August Sunday in 1963 a brigade of five hundred people, each equipped with a gold-painted shovel, broke ground for a new $1 million church building at 25th and La Salle Streets. Over 2000 watched movie stars Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis along with civic and religious dignitaries “turning over the soil” for First AME's new sanctuary. (Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1963) As the oldest and largest African American church in Los Angeles, First AME led by youthful pastor Dr. H. Hartford Brookins (image 4), had successfully extended its ministry and services “far beyond racial lines.” Outgrowing their facilities on Towne Avenue and “engulfed by commercial and industrial establishments,” the location was “somewhat undesirable for a church.” (Los Angeles Times, October 24, 1964) A move was imperative for the 95-year-old congregation.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in Pennsylvania in 1787 and established as a protest to the treatment of “free people of color” by Philadelphia’s St. George M.E. Church. It became an official American denomination in 1816. The Los Angeles branch first met in 1872 at the home of Biddy Mason, an African American pioneer in the city. Starting with twelve charter members, the early church struggled but under Reverend Jarrett E. Edwards grew to over 400 by 1904. Recognizing the need for expanded services, Rev. Edwards was the force behind their move from a modest church on Azusa Street to an impressive $20,000 edifice built at 801 Towne Avenue. (The city listed the building as #71 on the Historic-Cultural Monument List but it was demolished in 1972.) With daycare for children of working parents, gymnasium for young men, free reading/game room, as well as “a general bureau of information… where competent help will be furnished,” First AME served the broader urban community. (Los Angeles Herald, January 30, 1904)
In the 1940s the dynamic Frederick D. Jordan was named pastor of the church. Jordan asked Paul R. Williams, a member of the congregation, to contribute plans for a $100,00 expansion of the church facilities at the Towne Avenue location. Described at the time as "the famous architect," Williams included a Community Youth Center with "a private chapel, administration offices, church parlor, class rooms, library, ladies lounge, social hall and an apartment for the custodian." (Negro Who's Who in California. 1948 edition.) With these new upgrades First AME could service its growing congregation.
Later as a First AME board trustee, Williams donated design plans for the next expansion of the church, a new building on 25th and LaSalle. In a contemporary newspaper article the architect elaborated on the spectacular features of his design. The complex “will include a sanctuary seating 5,000, a 150-seat chapel, an auditorium with space for 700, and another seating 600, equipped with a stage, dining facilities and other conveniences…The plant will include underground parking, facilities for medical and counseling care and so on.” (Los Angeles Times, October 24, 1964) Williams estimated the project would take a year to complete.
Though the “official” groundbreaking occurred in 1963, construction did not begin until December 1964. Fund-raising efforts continued throughout Los Angeles crossing racial lines. Entertainer Danny Thomas, a friend and client of Paul R. Williams, acted as toastmaster at a benefit banquet supporting construction. The banquet dinner at the Baltimore Bowl was over-subscribed. Seven hundred guests spent the evening “seeing and being seen” with the many African American judges, politicians and entertainers who were members of the church.
When Williams died in 1980 his funeral service was held at the First AME Church in the building he had designed seventeen years earlier. Pastor Cecil Murray wrote of his childhood friend: "Paul R. Williams not only designed buildings. Paul R. Williams designed lives. Paul R. Williams designed the future and dreams of tomorrow. The blood of Paul R. Williams is in the walls of this church." (Los Angeles Sentinel, January 31, 1980)