Welcome back to #ModernistMondays! At TTC, we are constantly inspired by modernist architects and artists from past and present. To showcase some of our favorites, we launched #ModernistMondays, where we highlight one modernist each month to explore with quick, interesting facts. Our pick this month is designer to the stars, boundary-breaking Paul Revere Williams.
You can read more about Paul Revere Williams and fellow pioneering black architects in our blog post, “Celebrating 3 Black Architects Who Shaped Modern Architecture.”
As one of the first certified Black architects in U.S. history and one of the most prominent modernists on the West Coast, Los Angeles-born Paul R. Williams grew up as the only African-American person in his school. He was adopted by a white couple after he lost his parents as a child.
In college, at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design, Williams found a love for planning and architecture. For a few years, he spent time as a landscape architect, and after graduating from the University of Southern California, earned his architect certification in 1921. He won an architecture competition soon after and then opened his own office. However, he had trouble gaining popularity due to racial prejudice.
Williams learned to draft “upside-down” from across the table when presenting to clients because many of them would not sit next to a Black man. In 1923, Williams became the first Black member of the AIA, and a few years later was awarded the AIA Award of Merit by his peers. Over his long career, Williams designed more than two thousand private homes, many of them for celebrities in the Southern California area. In the 50s, he designed now-iconic homes for Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Barbara Stanwyck.
Williams designed homes for hundreds of other notable figures in the arts, as well as many buildings around Los Angeles, such as an addition to the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (in collaboration with fellow architects Charles Luckman, William Pereira, and Welton Becket). The unfortunate truth was that the land he built many homes on was segregated, and Black people were prevented from purchasing there.
During the housing crisis, Williams also worked on charitable projects such as the first post-war low-income housing in Washington, DC, and another in Southeast Los Angeles, creating homes for people who may otherwise not have had them.
In 1955, Williams was hired to convert a Woolworths department store in Manhattan into a bank, where he subsequently stored many of his files, drawings, and archives. During unrest in the city years later, the bank was burned, and most of Williams’ files were presumed gone forever. His granddaughter curated the remaining files and they were acquired by the Getty Research Institute and USC School of Architecture.
In 2020, forty years after his passing in 1980, USC architecture dean Milton Curry shared that the drawings and plans in the files now serve as important developments in the understanding of twentieth-century modernism.
Discover More Great Architects and Designers Using These Resources
“Paul Revere Williams, FAIA,” AIA.org; “A Trailblazing Black Architect Who Helped Shape L.A.,” NPR.org; “PAUL REVERE WILLIAMS, FAIA (1894-1980),” USModernist.org; “Paul R. Williams,” Wikipedia