Paul R. Williams was born in 1894, to parents who came to Los Angeles from Memphis. Before he was four years old, he lost them both to tuberculosis, and was orphaned and separated from his siblings. However, as luck would have it, a foster mother who saw his great potential as an artist took him in, and nurtured his interests in the arts. Even though Los Angeles at the turn of the century was multi-ethnic, he was still the only black student in both his elementary school and at the Polytechnic High School. He experienced his first obstacles associated with racism during his youth, most notably with a high school counselor who tried to discourage him from becoming an architect, saying that white clients would never hire him, and that black clients could never afford the homes he designed. Undaunted, Paul Williams persevered in his studies, attending the LA chapter of the Beaux Arts Institute of Design of NY, and winning its medal of excellence. He won other competitions as well, such as first place for his design of a Pasadena civic center, at the age of 20. He went on to study architectural engineering at USC, which at the time was in its infancy in that field. In 1923, Paul Williams became the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects, and eventually won the organization’s prestigious AIA Award of Merit for his design of the MCA building in Beverly Hills. Throughout his life, he was a role model and advocate for civil rights, and a leader in the community, and nation; respected for his ability to cross-racial barriers with sensitivity and grace. As a young architect, he perfected the skill of drawing his plans upside down, to put his white clients at ease, allowing them to sit across the table from him rather than side by side, as he sketched their designs.
After graduating, he joined the residential firm of Reginald Johnson, who gave him his first big opportunity: to build a $150,000 home. Until then, he had never even been in a home that cost more than $10,000…it seemed inconceivable to him that anyone could actually spend that much money on a house. Ironically, from this humble beginning, he became known as the “architect of the stars”, designing lavish homes for the most notable celebrities of the time, including Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Danny Thomas, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Julie London, Lon Chaney, and Barbara Stanwyck, to name a few. His designs combined traditional Tudor, Regency, and Mediterranean styles, with a chic contemporary look, both elegant and non-formal. His buildings and homes have close relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces, and often included his signature trademark of a sweeping staircase, often gracefully curved. In addition to thousands of residential projects, he became well know for his involvement in public planning, and a number of notable re-designs and commercial properties, including the The Beverly Hills Hotel and Polo Lounge, The Ambassador Hotel, Saks Fifth Ave on Wilshire, the Shrine Auditorium, The First Methodist Church, Los Angeles County Courthouse, LA General Hospital, and probably his most iconic public design, the gracefully arched, futuristic LAX Theme Building.
Paul Williams’s renown was not limited to California. He also designed St Jude’s Hospital in Memphis (for his former client Danny Thomas), Landon Terrace in Washington DC (the first federally funded housing project in the nation), and properties in Palm Springs in collaboration with A. Quincy Jones, including the Palm Spring Tennis Club. He earned 3 honorary degrees, from Howard University, Tuskegee, and Lincoln University. His unwavering support and commitment to black youth and culture won him the prestigious NAACP Spingham Medal, recognizing his contributions to the African American community. Even while surrounded by his famous and wealthy clients, “nothing would deter him from addressing the needs of the growing African-American community. He took genuine pride in being able to influence the look and environment of his own community. From churches to mortuaries, youth centers to financial institutions, Paul Williams believed that the visibility of his designs in the community where he lived and socialized was immensely important.”