What do the homes of Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Barbara Stanwyck and the public housing project of Langston Terrace in Washington, D.C. have in common?
They were all designed by architect Paul R. Williams.
Williams was born in 1894 to middle class parents who had moved to Los Angles to escape the racism and violence they faced in Tennessee. They hoped that the warmer climate and less restrictive business opportunities would lead them to a better life. Tragically, both of Paul’s parents succumbed to tuberculosis - his father dying when he was two and his mother passing when he was four. He and his older brother were separated and raised by different families.
Fortunately for Paul, his adoptive family was able to offer the opportunities his parents had wanted for him. Like most boys at the time, Williams held a job at a young age, selling newspapers in downtown Los Angeles to bring income to the family. Unlike most Black boys, he was enrolled in predominately White schools. As a teenager, he was accepted to the highly selective Los Angeles Polytechnic High School as one of their few Black students. When he told a teacher he wanted to be an architect, he says the teacher “looked at me as if I’d suggested a rocket trip to Mars. The teacher exclaimed, ‘Whoever heard of a Negro architect? Your people won’t be able to afford you and White people won’t hire you. Be a doctor or a lawyer because your people will always need those.”
Williams ignored the advice. Upon graduation, he set out to achieve his dream. In the 1920s, there were five ways someone could become an architect: completing an apprenticeship, earning a university degree, completing a correspondence degree, working for a contractor, or working in interior design. Most White architects only pursued one or two of these paths. But Paul encountered racism and discrimination along each path he pursued. Undeterred, when an obstacle blocked his way, he moved on to one of the other available options, eventually acquiring experience along all five career paths on his way toward becoming an architect.
Winning architectural competitions proved to be his breakthrough opportunity. In a competition, judges selected winners solely on talent. They were blind to an entrant’s pedigree, professional reputation, or race. Protected against racial bias, Williams won a number of competitions and drew the attention of prominent White architects. Some of them introduced Paul to the rich and famous who were making names for themselves as Hollywood entered its Golden Age.
In 1928, Williams had achieved enough success to open his own architectural firm, exactly ten years after his teacher had told him to give up on his dream. Williams was hired by a number of movie stars and film executives to design their homes. But racism was still ingrained in high society. Concerned that White clients wouldn’t want to sit next to a Black man as they discussed a project, Paul taught himself to draw upside down so his clients could see him sketch his ideas right side up as they sat across a desk from him.
Slowly, a changing social dynamic worked in Williams’ favor – Hollywood’s Golden Age was drawing a large Jewish population to Los Angeles and to the movie industry. Jewish stars were taking anglicized names (Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Cary Grant), and they too understood discrimination as they made inroads into the White Anglo power structure of Hollywood. As a result, their mindset was such that they wanted to hire the best, and not be constrained by restrictions based on racism. Further helping Williams’ reputation was his client-centric approach to design. While a renowned White architect might present an idea with the attitude of “This is my creation, take it or leave it,” a Black man in a White world had to cater to his client’s wants to a much greater degree. Williams didn’t have the luxury of imposing his style onto his clients. Because he had taken so many paths on his way to becoming an architect, Paul used his expanded knowledge of varied architectural styles and techniques. The result was a clientele of happy, wealthy, and powerful influencers who recommended him to their wealthy and powerful friends.
As part of his desire to appeal to his clients, Williams’ appearance was always meticulous. Impeccably dressed, he carried himself with poise and calm, reflecting his long history of successfully navigating as the only Black man in a room filled with wealthy White men.
But polish and poise couldn’t protect Paul from systemic discrimination. Despite attaining his own wealth, he wasn’t allowed to live in the homes he built. Restrictive covenants were commonplace. The deed for one of the homes Williams designed read, “That none of the real estate herein described nor any portion thereof, nor any building on the same, shall be sold, conveyed, leased or rented to or occupied by any person other than that of the Caucasian race. “
In a 1937 essay published in American Magazine entitled “I Am a Negro,” Williams wrote:
“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. I must always live in that locality, or in another like it, because...I am a Negro.”
Resigned to working within the social confines that were his reality, Williams used his growing national reputation and network of powerful acquaintances to move into the more lucrative commercial market. It was a testament to his talent and his demeanor that as his business expanded, both Black and White architects considered it an honor to work for him.
Williams’ firm would go on to design housing projects to accommodate the post-WWII housing boom. His most famous project of the era was the Beverly Hills Hotel. But it was a place that wouldn’t permit him to stay as a guest or eat in the restaurant when he was working there. If a client wanted to meet by the pool to discuss plans for a hotel suite he was designing, he had to stand until the client arrived, because he wouldn’t be served unless he was in the company of a White person.
To counter this racial bias, if a client arrived at Williams’ office and was then shocked to find out he was Black, Paul would play a psychological game. If he saw the client was thinking about leaving, he’d quickly ask the client how much they planned on spending on their home. Whatever the answer, Williams would reply that the amount was too low; that he didn’t accept projects that were so small and he was much too busy to consider the project. In Hollywood, his pretense of being inaccessible was just the thing to make a White client want his services.
Successful and wealthy in his own right, Paul was compelled to give back to his own community. In 1946, he helped establish the Broadway Federal Savings & Loan Association. Most banks relied on the practice of redlining, where Black neighborhoods would be identified on a map by drawing red lines along the neighborhood’s boundaries. These neighborhoods were considered too high crime, too low income, and too risky for mortgages. Broadway Federal’s mission was to fund home loans for Blacks who were being denied mortgages by other banks. In time, the bank would help thousands build generational wealth through home ownership.
As he navigated a White power structure, Williams became a conservative Republican at a time most Blacks were Democrats. Some critics have labeled him an “Uncle Tom” for not using his voice to advocate for civil rights. In his “I Am a Negro” essay, Williams had explained his views, writing “I came to realize that I was being condemned, not by lack of ability, but by my color. I passed through successive stages of bewilderment, inarticulate protest, resentment, and, finally, reconciliation to the status of my race. Eventually, however, as I grew older and thought more clearly, I found in my condition an incentive to personal accomplishment, and inspiring challenge. Without having the wish to ‘show them,’ I developed a fierce desire to ‘show myself.’ I wanted to vindicate every ability I had. I wanted to acquire new abilities. I wanted to prove that I, as an individual, deserved a place in the world.”
Paul R. Williams died in 1980 at the age of eighty-five. He was eulogized by his friend, Danny Thomas, for whom Williams had donated his architectural services for Thomas’ St. Jude Hospital in Memphis. The church holding the funeral service had been designed by Williams. Despite a seating capacity of 1,500, the service was standing room only.
Williams left behind the legacy of becoming the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the AIA’s first Black Fellow. He was posthumously awarded the AIA's 2017 Gold Medal, America's highest honor for an architect. More importantly, he broke barriers that enabled other talented Black designers to see themselves as architects, so that they too could ignore a teacher’s bad advice.
To learn more about Paul Williams, we recommend Hollywood’s Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story