Occasionally, punctuated among a history of African American bigotry and racism in this country, sheer talent has trump hate. Such is true for the talents of a few like Josephine Baker, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, Jackie Robinson and Lena Horn. While they didn’t escape racism, they certainly succeeded despite of it, thanks to their talent, stubbornness, and a few patrons who would set aside a collective drive for segregation and racist-driven dismissal.
There were also geographic pockets of openness over the decades, like the 1920’s and 1930’s in Los Angeles, when racial bias was ignored under “the right circumstances.”
Architect Paul Revere Williams was one of those talents who succeeded despite racial biases, and was fortunate to find his time in the sun in the City of Angeles during a somewhat open and accepting time.
He was born in 1894 and quickly orphaned as a young child, then raised in Southern California. He graduated from Polytechnic High School. He studied at the Los Angeles School of Art, the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, and the engineering school at the University of Southern California (USC).
In 1923 he was the first African American to become a member of the Southern California chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
He’s known for his work in the 1950’s and 1960’s when he designed some of the most distinctive public buildings in Los Angeles. Williams’s best-known building is probably the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport, which he designed with William Pereira.
While there is no one distinctive "look" to buildings by Paul Williams, he became known for his mastery of various architectural styles. Paul Williams borrowed ideas from the past without using excessive ornamentation. Modern interpretations of Tudor-revival, French Chateau, Regency, and Mediterranean architecture were all within his vernacular. According to one critic, Paul Williams was "the last word in elegant traditionalism."
Sandwiched between his start in the 1920’s and his public projects of the 50’s and 60’s, Williams established himself as an architect of many of the most beautiful houses in Hollywood. In fact he is often referred to as the first Star Architect for his work with celebrities. Williams designed homes for Frank Sinatra, Tyrone Power, the aforementioned Bill Robinson, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and Lon Chaney.
Like racial biases, there were social class biases as well. During William’s time, Hollywood-types were shunned by a certain class of people as well. The developer of Bel-Air (now a celebrity lair) famously refused to sell to those who participated in the creation of motion pictures (until he fell on hard financial times, and changed his tune). Back in the day, some social circles a woman in Hollywood was simply one wrung higher than a prostitute—shunned social gatherings and segregated from many activities.
So perhaps it is fitting that Williams found a home among this community, of creative-driven, and open-minded people who themselves fell victim of segregation in one way or another.
Still, as a Black American, Paul Williams faced many social and economic barriers. Williams' clients were mostly white. "In the moment that they met me and discovered they were dealing with a Negro, I could see many of them freeze," he wrote in American Magazine. "My success during those first few years was founded largely upon my willingness — anxiety would be a better word — to accept commissions which were rejected as too small by other, more favored, architects."
It is told that Williams learned a talent of drawing upside down, so he might not have to make his clients feel uncomfortable sitting next to a black man while they collaborated on a project.
"If I allow the fact that I am a Negro to checkmate my will to do, now, I will inevitably form the habit of being defeated."
Today, Williams is highly regarded as one of the scions of architecture in Los Angeles, driven to success by members of the creative professions.