clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Chasing Paul Williams

When I started photographing buildings designed by Paul Williams—the first certified Black architect on the West Coast—I knew little about architecture. So I searched for clues about the man himself

For the past three years, I have photographed buildings designed by Paul Revere Williams, a legendary Los Angeles architect who practiced for 50 years and is credited with nearly 3,000 buildings. He was the first certified Black architect west of the Mississippi and the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects. In 2017, 37 years after his death, 44 years after his retirement, and 94 years after his AIA induction, Williams became the first Black architect to win the AIA Gold Medal.

Williams was born in 1894 to parents who moved from Memphis to Los Angeles for the promised curative properties of the climate. Both had tuberculosis, and both were dead before Williams’s fifth birthday. Williams and his older brother ended up in separate foster homes. The woman who raised Williams recognized that he was special and nurtured his skills. He decided he wanted to become an architect and had enough confidence in himself to pursue architecture in spite of a teacher who told him it was a ridiculous dream. White people wouldn’t want to hire him, the teacher promised, and Black people wouldn’t be able to afford to.

Williams persisted. He designed municipal buildings and private homes. He designed banks, churches, hospitals, university halls, middle schools, and funeral homes. He designed public housing projects and mansions for celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball. If you have ever spent an afternoon driving around Los Angeles, you have seen a Williams building or two.

I believe Williams’s story is one that only could have taken place in Los Angeles. When he began his career here in the early 1920s, the city had three factors that allowed him to flourish: lots of money, lots of land, and a handful of wealthy white people liberal or desperate enough to commission a young Black architect. Subtract any one of those factors and his big story would shrink until it disappeared.

Hancock Park provides a good example of how Williams’s career came to be. Hancock Park was established as a residential neighborhood in the early 1920s, at the same time Williams was beginning his solo practice. The Los Angeles elite could build their mansions in a new neighborhood protected by a 50-year restrictive covenant that promised that the only non-white people who could call it home would be servants. After years of violence, LA’s restrictive covenants were a kinder, gentler way to keep neighborhoods white. Better to shut the undesirables out altogether than let them move in and have to burn crosses on their lawns later.

Williams designed one house in Hancock Park, then another, and another. The same thing happened in La Canada Flintridge, Pasadena, and Windsor Square. Word spread throughout Hancock Park and other affluent parts of the city about his impeccable work. Sometimes people who had heard his name would come into his office, only to be shocked to find that he was Black. Some turned and left, but others stayed out of politeness. For these people, Williams taught himself a brilliant trick; he learned how to draw upside down as well as he could right side up. A skittish prospective client could be drawn in by the magic of watching the home of their dreams appear on the table in front of them without the impropriety of sitting next to the architect.

When I began my project about Williams, this and other stories about his knack for turning indignities into triumphs intrigued me. Knowing next to nothing about architecture, I wasn’t sure what to look for when I walked into Williams’s buildings, so I searched for clues about the man himself.

How did it feel to design homes in neighborhoods that he wouldn’t have been allowed to live in? How did he unwind from the incredible stress of having to defer to people who would enjoy the benefits of his brilliance and labor without fully respecting him as a human being? When designing an intimate space for a client too prejudiced to shake his hand, did he view his work as a subversive act, or something he had to do to survive?

Three years ago, architect Barbara Bestor approached me with an idea. She was looking for a photographer to make a study of Williams’s work, and wondered if I’d be interested. I had heard of Williams in passing, but had no idea of the scope or scale of his work. I grew up in Philadelphia, 2,700 miles away. I loved LA, but I barely knew it. Back then, I didn’t even have a driver’s license. I was interested in architecture, and architecture had been slowly creeping into my work for years, but it felt too big to get my arms around.

I was also busy with a one-year-old and a new full-time office job. I was struggling to figure out how I was going to fit art into my busy life. I was overwhelmed, and the thing I needed to get back into my own work was an assignment. That initial email from Barbara came at exactly the right time. I felt like an imposter, but I said yes.

Most architectural photography is about the big picture. What does a building look like from the street, or a room look like from the threshold? I wanted to create an experience of Williams’s work that was about the feeling of living in the spaces and loving them. Williams thought about all the little details, and I felt that the most fitting way to honor him was to think about those details too. I decided that the work should be in black and white to strip away distractions like the color of a wall or carpet.

One of the first buildings I photographed was a house in Lafayette Square, around the corner from the house he built for himself and his wife. The woman who owns the house today is the granddaughter of the original owners—a doctor and his wife who were part of the same circle of successful professional Black families in which the Williamses travelled. She told me that when her grandparents were searching for a parcel of land to build their house on in the late 1940s, the restrictive covenants prevented them from buying in Lafayette Square. They had a friend who could pass for white handle the face-to-face parts of the transaction, and they got their land. By the time their house was completed, the covenants had been lifted.

Williams and his friends were fortunate; they were savvy enough to make space for themselves in a hostile city. Many were not. The history of real estate and development in Los Angeles is filled with ugly stories about redlining and other forms of institutionalized segregation, the effects of which are still being felt today. LA is one of this country’s most diverse cities, but remains deeply segregated. Still, when I travel through its streets, I see a world of infinite possibilities. If Williams could become one of the most notable architects of the 20th century here, what can my children become in the 21st?

Williams could design a neoclassical mansion or a modernist bungalow. He never stopped designing buildings to serve his own community, even as the work he did outside of it earned him the nickname “architect to the stars.” He was known for designing to fit the needs of his clients without imposing his ego. His buildings do not boast about the prowess of their architect. They don’t need to. His mastery of his craft was its own reward.

The story of my work about Williams is all tied up with my own personal milestones: Learning to drive, and learning Los Angeles by car; my pregnancy with my second child, and lugging camera equipment and a big belly around strangers’ houses; figuring out that I could be a mother and still be an artist. I learned a lot about myself doing this work, and the work continues. I could spend the rest of my life searching for and photographing Williams buildings. There are that many of them.

Los Angeles is known as a city that likes to forget its history, but I think it will always remember Paul Revere Williams.

This essay was originally written for 3rd LA, an ongoing public events series exploring innovative design and Los Angeles culture. It is organized by the city’s chief design officer, Christopher Hawthorne, and Occidental College. Buy Janna Ireland’s book Regarding Paul R. Williams: A Photographer’s View.

Venice

Serene Venice house with bounty of outdoor spaces asks $4.2M

Miracle Mile

LACMA is beloved. Its design never was.

The San Fernando Valley

Harry Gesner’s midcentury Triangle House in Tarzana seeks $3.9M

View all stories in Los Angeles Architecture