Competition plays an important role in architecture. As a student Paul R. Williams entered many regional and national design contests to develop and hone his skills. As a young designer his submissions typically incorporated a variety of the historical design-elements popular at the time. Williams’ submission to the 1918 White Pine Architectural Competition included a number of disparate historical elements. In their critique of Williams’ entry, the panel of judges wrote that his otherwise charming design was harmed by the combination of Palladian windows and dormers. Ironically it was his skill at melding classic architectural details with the modern California aesthetic that would make the experienced Williams a popular architect. His creative eclecticism and taste gave his clients a sense of instant, self-assured, worldly sophistication that their money alone could not provide. (Harvard Design Magazine. Summer, 1997)In 1939 Williams returned to the Palladian style when he designed the San Francisco mansion of Dr. and Mrs. Cuenin (Lillian and Leon), a residence now considered a “Pacific Heights Jewel” by local architectural historians. Sited on a relatively flat block of Divisadero Street with an eclectic mix of architectural styles, the location offered spectacular views of parks and the Golden Gate Bridge. Williams’ classically inspired design became the ideal backdrop for the socially prominent couple. Leon Cuenin was a successful dental surgeon and well-regarded faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Dentistry. Lillian, a tireless local charity committee woman, was also a passionate supporter and patron of San Francisco opera. Moving into their new residence in 1940 the couple immediately welcomed San Francisco society by issuing “invitations to an at home.” (Berkeley Daily Gazette. March 27, 1940) For decades their residence was part of the city’s social and philanthropic scene—seasonal home tours, fundraising auctions, cocktail party circuit, club meeting site. Everyone who mattered in greater San Francisco knew their mansion.
The Cuenin residence is an example of Williams’ prewar aesthetic. A proponent of what was then considered the contemporary architectural style, Williams based the proportions, symmetry, perspective and values of this multi-story residence on a classical Palladian Temple while incorporating the functional needs of the client. (Western Architect and Engineer. June, 1940) Leaders in the conservative San Francisco society, the Cuenins required a more formal, elegant home than Williams’ typical wealthy Los Angeles client. In a nod to the temperate California climate and “an expression of the strong relationships between interior and exterior spaces,” he included a series of private landscaped English-style garden spaces for entertaining that were accessed from the living or dining rooms. An east-facing balcony complete with an ornate wrought iron swag, also provided additional dramatic outdoor space.In every custom design for his wealthy clients Williams created an extra, personalized detail, an identifying signature element—a spectacular entry, stairway, or unique flow of space. For the Cuenins, the architect designed an intricate, inlaid, wooden medallion for their foyer floor. Set at the base of a graceful, dramatically cascading staircase, the floor design echoed a glass skylight above the third floor landing. With this dramatic entry Williams' design informs the visitor about the Cuenins and their aspirations—“affable, well-mannered, gracious and graceful, a mite different but not so different as to shock.” Like the set for one of their favorite operas, the foyer became a stage for the couple’s entertaining.