Black History: Paul R. Williams, First African-American Member of the AIA, FAIA (1894 – 1980)

Continuing with the celebration of Black History Month, I want to introduce architect Paul Revere Williams, FAIA.  Mr. Williams was a Los Angeles-based architect, and a Fellow Member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA); in fact, he became the first African-American member of the AIA in 1923, and the first African-American voted Fellow in 1957.  He  practiced largely in Southern California, and designed many public and private buildings, as well as the homes of numerous Hollywood star, ranging from Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz, and Lon Chaney.

Mr. Williams studied at the Los Angeles School of Art & Design and at the LA branch of the New York Beaux-Arts Institute of Design Atelier.  He would later attend the University of Southern California (USC) School of Engineering and designed several residential buildings while he was still a student. Williams earned his certification to become a licensed architect in 1921, becoming the first certified African-American architect west of the Mississippi.

Williams later served on the first Los Angeles City Planning Commission in 1920, and from 1921 through 1924 he worked for LA-based architect John C. Austin, eventually becoming chief draftsman. Williams won an architectural competition at the age of 25 and later left Austin’s firm to open his own office at the age of 28, three (3) years later. He trained himself on becoming an outstanding draftsman by rendering his drawings “upside down,” a skill so developed so that his clients (who may have been uncomfortable sitting next to a black man in the first place) were able to see the rendered drawings right side up across the table from him.  In 1939, Williams won the AIA Award of Merit for the MCA Building in Los Angeles (now home to the Paradigm Talent Agency).  During World War II, Williams worked for the Navy Department as an architect, and after the war published his first book, The Small Home of Tomorrow (1945), followed by the volume New Homes for Today in 1946.

In 1951, Williams won the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. Man of the Year award, and in 1953 he received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP for his outstanding contributions as an architect and member of the African-American community. Williams received honorary doctorates from Howard University (doctor of architecture), Lincoln University of Missouri (doctor of science), and the Tuskegee Institute (doctor of fine arts). In 2004, USC honored him by naming him as an distinguished alumni in the TV commercial for the university shown during its football games.

Jet-Age Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)

Some of the buildings Mr. Willams designed include:

  • Arrowhead Springs Hotel & Spa, San Bernardino, California
  • Beverly Hills Hotel (redesigned & added rooms in the 1940s)
  • Carver Park Homes, Nevada
  • First Church of Christ, Scientist, Reno, Nevada)
  • Hollywood YMCA
  • The La Concha Motel, Nevada
    • The concrete paraboloid La Concha Motel in Las Vegas (disassembled and moved to the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada for use as the museum lobby 2006).
  • Los Angeles County Courthouse
  • Los Angeles County Hall of Administration
  • Palm Springs, CA, Tennis Club
  • Roberts House Ranch, Malibu, CA (The remains of the burned down structures can be visited on the Sostice Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.)
  • Saks Fifth Avenue Beverly Hills, Beverly Hills California
  • Shrine Auditorium (one of Williams’ early projects; he helped prepare construction drawings as a young architect.)
  • Jet-Age Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) (In the 1960s as part of the Pereira & Luckman firm and with consulting engineers, Williams helped design this futuristic landmark.)

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