Forty years after his passing, Paul Revere Williams remains one of the most prominent names in architecture. Known as the “Architect of the Stars’, he designed for a long list of celebrity clients. His signature script graces the side of the Beverly Hills Hotel to this day, and one of their infamous suites bears his name. He was a the first African-American member and Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, a civic leader and in all respects, a pioneer. And he’s one of my favorite constructors of midcentury Hollywood.
A native Angeleno, Williams’s early years were anything but easy. When he was four years old, both of his parents died of tuberculosis. He was raised by a foster mother who despite her strictness, encouraged his artistic pursuits. Williams faced barriers during almost every aspect of his education. Despite excelling in his white schools, he was told he could never become an architect. No amount of barrier kept him from his path, and he eventually enrolled in the University of Southern California, combining structural engineering courses with art and landscape design. He went on to apprentice for some of L.A.’s top architectural firms. He worked this tirelessly until the day he retired. He became the architect of choice for celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, and Lucille Ball. Having Paul Williams design your home was considered a lifestyle choice. The quality of his distinct style and meticulous attention to detail are just a few of the reasons why elite clients were drawn to him. His designs are still in-demand today with celebrities. Paul William’s exquisite style was period-inspired—he took influence from Georgian, Colonial, Mediterranean, Tudor, and Norman periods. Touring the various neighborhoods of Los Angeles, it is quite impossible not to come across a house designed by Paul Williams.
Beverly Hills Hotel and the residences of the rich aside, you might be familiar with a few of these Paul Williams masterpieces: LAX International Airport and the Beverly Hills Saks Fifth Avenue store. The Music Corporation of America (MCA) Headquarters Building in Beverly Hills was designed by Williams at the request of its founder, Julius Caesar Stein. Stein was an ophthalmologist and a musician at the same time. As a medical practitioner, he earned additional income by booking gigs for musicians. Eventually, Stein gave up his practice to focus on the entertainment industry. Envisioning a headquarters to cater to elite clients, there was no other choice than Paul Williams. Stein wanted an office that was nostalgic, welcoming, and homey. Together, they built MCA in 1938. Williams chose a classic English-Georgian design that was perfect for Hollywood clients. With its iron gates and staircases, numerous columns, and lush gardens, beautifully spread out on 124,000 square feet of property, MCA is like a setting from the famous book, The Great Gatsby.
Awards and Accomplishments
MCA was a significant accomplishment for Williams and as a result of his design, he was awarded the American Institute of Architects Award (AIA) of Merit, Southern California Chapter, in 1939. AIA also recognized him in their 2017 annual convention with the posthumous Gold Medal. Paul Williams was the first African-American to win this award. He was also the first African American member of the said institution when he became an AIA Fellow in 1957. His other accolades include the NAACP Spingarn Medal and USC’s Distinguished Alumni Award.
As an African American pioneer in architecture, Williams had to compete in an industry that was dominated by white men. He lived in an era when his entry was prohibited in the very houses, restaurants, and hotels he designed. For clients who did not want to sit next to him, Williams even had to learn how to sketch upside down. Despite all of these challenges, he was easily one of the most versatile and successful architects of his time and has luxury mansions and hotels, restaurants, office buildings, retail stores, schools, churches, public housing, and a children’s hospital to his credit. He hoped that his persistence and the quality of his work would open doors for others.
Tragically, a large portion of William’s drawings and sketches were destroyed when Broadway Federal Savings and Loan was burned as a result of the 1992 Rodney King riots. Most of his works were kept in Broadway Federal because of his close relations with its founder, H. Claude Hudson. Hudson was the father of Paul William’s daughter’s husband. Karen Hudson, the granddaughter of Williams and Hudson, has written several books that give light to William’s work. The Art Museum of the University of Memphis exhibited photographs of his works from October 22, 2010 through January 19, 2011.
Paul William’s life and accomplishments are essential contributions to the landscape and culture of this nation. Hollywood was built by Paul Revere Williams. If you’d like to spend more time learning about his work and legacy, you can start here.