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Trailblazing Black Architect’s Work Archived at USC
By Sarafina Wright
WI Contributing Writer
The work and materials of trailblazing African American architect Paul Revere Williams, who designed over 3,000 projects, has been jointly acquired by the University of Southern California School of Architecture and Getty Research Institute.
Described by many as the most significant African American architect of the 20th century, Williams has been credited with playing a supreme role in the cultural landscape and design of Los Angeles.
His archive includes approximately 35,000 plans, 10,000 original drawings, blueprints and project diazotypes, hand-colored renderings, vintage photographs, correspondence, and other materials.
It will also document the entirety of Williams’ career, from his early residential commissions during Los Angeles’ housing boom of the 1920s to landmark mid-century civic structures.
“Paul Williams led by example and instilled in his children and grandchildren the importance of excellence, attention to detail and, above all, family,” said Karen Elyse Hudson, Williams’ granddaughter, who has published extensively on his work. “The collaboration of two such esteemed institutions, the University of Southern California and Getty Research Institute, to preserve and further his legacy, would make our grandfather extremely proud.”
USC calls Williams a master of Late Moderne design, known for combining long horizontal lines and sleek curving forms, yet fully versed in other architectural styles.
His early work was primarily residential, designing legendary homes for leaders in business and entertainment such as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Bill Bojangles Robinson, Frank Sinatra, the E. L. Cord and Paley families, Cary Grant and many more.
In his later career, Williams focused on commercial, institutional, and public building projects.
Williams’s mid-twentieth-century designs include refurbishments and additions to the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Los Angeles International Airport planning and design team, the Los Angeles County Courthouse, the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building, Hillside Memorial Park, Westwood Medical Center and First AME Church.
He also worked on a large number of national and international projects like the design and construction of the Hotel Nutibara in Medellín, Colombia. He was an associate architect on the U.N. Building in Paris and Langston Terrace in D.C., the first federally sponsored public housing in the country.
USC says although many believe that Williams’ archive was destroyed in a fire during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, it was primarily business records. Most of the extensive archive was in a different location and is in excellent condition.
“The papers that are going to USC and Getty have been known about since the 1992 fire, and those who did are undoubtedly relieved that they are finally going to be in the public domain,” said Leslie Luebbers, project director for the Paul R. Williams Project and director of the Art Museum of the University of Memphis. “But the collection does not undo, as some reports have suggested, the devastating loss of material in the 1992 fire.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1894, Williams was orphaned at the age of four. Exceptionally gifted, he landed internships and jobs at prominent, local architecture firms immediately after high school in 1912, despite racial prejudice, according to his biography.
Williams took classes at the Los Angeles Beaux-Arts School, ultimately attending USC’s School of Engineering. In 1920, he was appointed to the first Los Angeles City Planning Commission.
He opened his own practice in 1923, later serving as an architect for the Navy during World War II.
“During a period of de jure segregation, Paul R. Williams mastered architecture, a public art form, and was as prolific as he was persistent,” said LeRonn P. Brooks, associate curator for modern and contemporary collections at the Getty Research Institute. “His legacy is therefore as much about the character of the man himself as it is the scale, variety and ambitions within a professional practice wed to realizations of perpetual excellence.
“His career and life invite new histories to be written by the countless scholars who will have unprecedented access to this tremendously important archive,” Brooks said.
Williams retired in 1973, having received numerous accolades, including the American Institute of Architect’s Award of Merit in 1939 for the Music Corporation of America Building and the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal in 1953 for his outstanding contributions as an architect and work with Los Angeles’s Black community.
Williams died in 1980 at the age of 85. In 2017, he was posthumously awarded USC Architecture’s Distinguished Alumni Award.
“Paul Revere Williams is one of USC’s most important alumni,” said Milton S.F. Curry, dean of the USC School of Architecture. “Our goal is to continue advancing the incredible legacy of Paul R. Williams, a true trailblazer in the field of architecture, and to share the archive with new and diverse audiences through publications, symposia, exhibitions, and more.
“The work contained in this archive tells many stories,” Curry said. “Williams was an architect who believed that architecture could advance social progress…his work and life as captured in this archive will quickly become an invaluable resource for like-minded students, faculty and the greater public.”