advertisement
advertisement

Why Paul Williams, Hollywood’s most prolific black architect, drew upside down

A new documentary highlights Williams’s remarkable career, designing houses for everyone from Frank Sinatra to Lucille Ball—and the obstacles he faced as the first black architect certified on the West Coast.

Why Paul Williams, Hollywood’s most prolific black architect, drew upside down
Paul Williams [Photo: Getty Images/courtesy PBS SoCal]

Los Angeles’s architectural landscape, much like its population, is a vibrant blend of different colors, shapes, and influences. The diversity of styles—from Googie to Spanish Colonial Revival—reflects the myriad cultures and languages that punctuate the city’s streets. But the people of color who developed the city have largely been left out of its urbanist history.

advertisement
advertisement

During old Hollywood’s heyday at the turn of the 20th century, the celebrity elite famously lived in neighborhoods like Beverly Hills, Hancock Park, and the hills of Bel Air. What is less well-known is that many of these dazzling estates were designed by Paul Revere Williams, the first black architect certified to work on the West Coast. A new documentary from PBS, Hollywood’s Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story, chronicles the design work of a man who desegregated California’s architecture industry.

Williams was known for designing homes for the silver screen’s biggest stars, such as Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball. The hourlong documentary, written, directed, and produced by Royal Kennedy Rodgers and Kathy McCampbell Vance, features several of the architect’s private properties peppered around greater Los Angeles. “He tapped into the desire of his clients to live lavishly and elegantly, in a way they never had,” says Vance. “His strength was that he designed for the client, [whereas] some architects have a design style and the clients adapt.” Known for a suave personal style and natural eloquence, Williams convinced clients that he was capable of designing a residence fit for their uniquely luxurious lifestyle—beyond the obvious talent he possessed, which many tried to ignore because of his race.

Zodiac pool and pool house at Jay Paley home. [Photo: Tim Street-Porter/courtesy PBS SoCal]
“He was known for combining styles, and on paper it sounds like kind of a mismatch,” says Rodgers. A designer showcase house [we feature in the documentary] was Tudor Revival on the outside and then there’s a Baroque landing and a staircase with some Spanish influence . . . on paper it sounds like it could be a disaster, but it’s not. He brought all styles together and made it work.” Williams was also celebrated for his ability to cater his designs to the immediate environment; one such example, a Brentwood home that was saved from demolition in 2013 by Disney CEO Bob Iger, is built around a prominent tree, thus melding the indoors with the outdoors. “Some architects might’ve cut down that tree because you could build a bigger house, but he kept the tree [and made the house] fit the site,” Vance says.

Paul Williams with model of Golden State Building. [Photo: UCLA Libraries Special Collections/courtesy PBS SoCal]

Williams’s mark is seen on commercial buildings throughout Los Angeles’s grid of sun-soaked streets, too. The iconic script of the Beverly Hills Hotel sign is written in Williams’s hand. He also collaborated on the eye-catching Space Age design of LAX’s Theme Building. “One of the things that he set out to do was to make sure that when you were at work, you felt at home,” Vance explains. “So if you look at the Music Corporation of America headquarters and Saks Fifth Avenue [on Wilshire Boulevard] . . . they’re made to be comfortable and lived in so you don’t feel like you’re toiling away—you feel relaxed in the beautiful environment. They look like living rooms in homes.”

Hollywood has long held the reputation of a community filled with liberal creatives—many of them American immigrants and California transplants. But Williams’s ability to cultivate personal and professional relationships with Hollywood’s wealthy, white community was not without injury. “Everything he did was to make the client feel comfortable,” Vance says. “That’s where the upside-down technique came from.” Sadly, and impressively, Williams developed a style of drawing his design sketches in an inverted fashion, because it allowed him to sit across from his white clients, knowing they’d prefer to not sit next to him. This subtle yet violent adjustment speaks to the flattening many black creators feel forced to perform on themselves to take up less space, even while having a seat at the table, doing work they’ve been sought out to do.

Williams’s career as one of Los Angeles’s preeminent architects spanned decades; he opened his own practice and became the first black member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1923, and retired in 1973. In this time, he designed close to 3,000 buildings, but his sheer prolificness was eclipsed only by his stunning ability to design spaces in neighborhoods that redlining kept him out of. (Williams did, however, design several structures in L.A.’s black community as well, namely the 28th Street YMCA in South Central and Broadway Federal Bank in Mid-City.) The documentary rightly credits Williams’s granddaughter, Karen Hudson, with keeping his legacy alive after his death in 1980: “When he retired, his reputation retired with him,” Vance says. “I don’t know that there was a movement to make him known, and that’s where Karen comes in.” Hudson conducted much of the research the film relies on, including hiring photographers to document her grandfather’s creations and building an exhaustive list of all the properties he built.

advertisement

And now with the documentary, which streams online for free, viewers get an even closer look at the pioneering architect who left an indelible mark on Southern California. “How many architects live beyond their lives?” Rodgers says. “Very few. Their work remains, their houses may be passed down from family to family, but you can only name a few architects who achieved the status of icon. . . . To live beyond your work is very rare.”

advertisement
advertisement