Photographer: Maynard L. Parker, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California
Le Corbusier, a Swiss-French architect and designer, is credited as one of the pioneers of 20th century Modern-style architecture. Le Corbusier’s theory of housing can be summarized as "a house is a machine for living." Paul R. Williams’ approach to residential housing in California was different. Though he incorporated some of the architectural elements promoted by Le Corbusier, Williams’ homes allowed for the California living style and were built as aspirational statements of his newly rich and powerful clients. An important key to his success was a keen understanding of the client's psychology. "People don't always know what they want. It is the architect's job to help them find it, and keep within the bounds of grace."(Los Angeles Times. October 11, 1970) His grasp of the emotional importance of creating the right “home” for each client established his reputation as the luxury architect of his time. While Williams would design housing for people at every level of society, his celebrity residences defined the look of today’s upscale Los Angeles.
Paul R. Williams is often called the “architect to the stars.” His list of movie-related clientele included important producers, directors, set designers, agents and movie stars as well as others who might have the wealth but not the élan. After the 1920s, Beverly Hills was the prestige address for both the movie elite and those who wanted to emulate them. For the celebrities living a distance from Hollywood allowed them to "separate themselves from the film industry that had created them; doing so enabled them to more easily maintain an image of royalty untainted by commercialism." (Historic Resources Survey Hollywood Development Project Area. February 2010) Stage and movie actor Bert Lahr's home is always included on any list of Williams’ Beverly Hills projects.
Little known today, in the 1930s and 40s Lahr was a Broadway, Burlesque and Vaudeville personality. When Williams designed his Beverly Hills Colonial revival home in 1941, Lahr had just completed the movie role that would make him famous, the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939). This film is credited as being the most successful movie of all time. In 2005 MGM’s film historians estimated that over one billion people around the world had seen the movie (The Times, London, December 9, 2006)(image 4).
Born in New York, Bert Lahr’s over-the-top Vaudeville comic song and dance style did not translate to film and he only appeared in a score of movies. However, his casting as the wanna-be warrior Lion was inspired with his dramatic posturing while wearing over-sized football shoulder pads under a 25-pound costume with a wildly wagging, gyrating tail (powered by an unseen stagehand with a fishing rod and line). The lion’s wish to be “king of the forest” and earn the respect of the rabbits and chipmunks, but held back by his lack of courage, is universally understood as the search for our inner hero.
The original 6,000 square-foot, four-bedroom main building sited on 1.3 acres in Coldwater Canyon was Williams' interpretation of Bert Lehr's vision. In a 1970 Los Angeles Times' interview, Williams explained that a "super-sized" but cozy stone fireplace meant home to Lehr. The extensive use of wood paneling, Colonial inspired wallpaper, and a graceful entry stairway extended the warm welcoming feeling the actor required. (images 2 and 3) The home's Early American aesthetic was not typical for a transplanted New Yorker. Williams also paid special attention to landscaping the 1.4 acres respecting Lahr’s enjoyment of gardening. Lahr loved the avocado, lemon, lime, grapefruit, almond, and fig trees planted on his property.
Many other Hollywood personalities have lived in the Lahr home including Betty Grable with her husband, bandleader Harry James, rocker Ozzie Osbourne and television actor Don Johnson with his former wife Melanie Griffith. Each resident has added his own personal touch expanding the estate to eventually encompas three buildings totalling 12,000 square foot of liveable space, including a 2-lane bowling alley, game room and bar. Though less than half of the home can still be considered "historically" a Paul Williams' design, the house maintains the special Williams' at home feel. (Los Angeles Times, February 18, 2011)
Paul R. Williams’ genius for capturing the aspirations of his clients did not mean he was without ambitions of his own. In his essay I Am A Negro he described them: “Today I sketched the preliminary plans for a large country house which will be erected in one of the most beautiful residential districts in the world.... Sometimes I have dreamed of living there. I could afford such a home. But this evening...I returned to my own small, inexpensive home...in a comparatively undesirable section of Los Angeles. Dreams cannot alter facts; I know...I must always live in that locality, or in another like it, because...I am a Negro.”