A window has opened into the career of one of the 20th century’s most uniquely successful architects. The archive of Paul Revere Williams—the Los Angeles-based architect whose projects range from public housing developments to the mansions of stars like Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra—has been acquired by the University of Southern California School of Architecture and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.
A prolific designer of homes, commercial buildings, churches, and hotels, Williams was also the country’s most celebrated African American architect. He gained unlikely prominence in the late 1920s, designing the homes of Hollywood’s largely white A-list at a time when Black Americans faced extreme racial prejudice and segregation.
“This is quite amazing in the second half of the ’20s and early ’30s, that there is this big opening for an African American architect,” says Maristella Casciato, senior curator of architecture at the Getty Research Institute. It was the start, she says, of a remarkable career, now legible to historians in the drawings, photographs, and papers of his archive.
This breadth of buildings and clients is evident in the archive’s documents, covering roughly 520 built and unbuilt projects. Previously believed to be lost in a bank fire during the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict, the archive includes tens of thousands of architectural drawings spanning the large majority of his career, including trace paper design sketches in pencil and final drawings in pen. Casciato says the most evocative are the color renderings made to be shown to clients, in pastel and watercolor, revealing Williams’s fine artistry.
They also show his salesmanship. Best known for his residential projects and the curving swoops of some of his celebrity homes, Williams’s body of work is notably agnostic to style. Casciato says the archive shows how flexible he was in meeting the desires of his clients. “His quote-unquote style for residential building, it varies a lot. It could be Spanish Revival, adobe houses, it can be more quote-unquote classical detailing and so on,” she says. “He was really able to look at the client and try to understand—someone like Cary Grant—what kind of house he would like to have.”
Williams, the first licensed African American architect in California, is also famous for another unique skill: his ability to draw upside down. This was supposedly a tactic that enabled him to stay seated across from prospective clients—primarily white men—in case they weren’t comfortable sitting next to a Black man. However, it wasn’t all about placating a client’s prejudice. As Williams wrote in an article for a 1937 issue of The American magazine, “It was more than a trick, for, as the room developed before his eyes, I would ask for suggestions and for approval of my own ideas. He became a full partner in the birth of that room as I filled in the details of the drawing.”
Though Casciato’s only just started to go through the archive’s tens of thousands of documents, she says Williams’s business acumen is undeniable. “The more I read, and I don’t think I’m imagining this, [Williams] must have been an extremely charming person,” she says. This led not only to two commissions from Sinatra, but also working partnerships with the most successful architects of the day. “I found it extremely interesting that his peers, Welton Becket, the most important corporate office probably in the U.S., even larger than SOM, he started collaborating with him,” she says. “It’s from recognizing the quality of his approach to architecture, the skill, the way he could develop ideas.”
Those ideas would eventually move beyond Hollywood into the public realm, reaching all classes of society. Notable Southern California buildings that Williams either designed himself or as part of a team of architects include the Los Angeles County Courthouse, Los Angeles International Airport, an expansion of the Beverly Hills Hotel, and the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. He also designed several major public housing developments, including Nickerson Gardens in Watts, the largest public housing project in the Western U.S. when it was completed in 1955, and Pueblo Del Rio, a South Los Angeles housing development, which he designed along with a team including the modernist architect Richard Neutra.
Williams, who died in 1980 at the age of 85, was awarded the American Institute of Architects’ highest honor, the Gold Medal, in 2017. Casciato says that while he was not unappreciated during his long career, the abundant documents in his archive will help create a more complete understanding of how he was able to be so successful. “There is this large scope that is really what makes this archive so relevant, beyond the fact that he is an African American architect,” she says.
The archive is currently only available at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, but researchers plan to fully digitize it in coming years.