paul revere williams

Against All Odds

Paul Revere Williams, the first licensed African-American architect west of the Mississippi, put his modernist mark on Palm Springs.

Kent Black Current PSL, History, Modernism

paul revere williams

The El Mirador Hotel.
ALL PHOTOGRAPHY BY JULIUS SHULMAN, © J. PAUL GETTY TRUST. GETTY RESEARCH INSTITUTE, LOS ANGELES

In a career spanning more than 50 years, from the 1920s until his death in 1980, architect Paul Revere Williams designed more than 3,000 buildings across Southern California, including the Saks Fifth Avenue, MCA, and Golden State Mutual Life buildings in Los Angeles and the Palm Springs Tennis Club, Romanoff’s on the Rocks restaurant, and Town & Country Center in Palm Springs.

Williams was a favorite of celebrities, the wealthy, and the influential. He designed their homes in exclusive L.A. enclaves such as Beverly Hills, Lafayette Square, Pasadena, and La Cañada Flintridge. His clients included Jay Paley, Barbara Stanwyck, Frank Sinatra, Bert Lahr, Danny Thomas, Tyrone Power, and Lon Chaney. In the desert, he famously designed Desi and Lucy Arnaz’s home in Rancho Mirage. He amassed many honors, from being named Omega Psi Phi’s Man of the Year in 1953 to receiving honorary doctorates from Lincoln Missouri University, Howard University, and the Tuskegee Institute. He was inducted into the American Institute of Architects’ College of Fellows in 1957. In 2017, the same organization awarded him its gold medal 37 years after his death.

Yet, for all his talent and accolades, it was his unique approach to architectural drafting that was one of his most telling accomplishments. As a former engineering student, he took pride in it. Yet, more than straightforward draftsmanship, Williams taught himself to draft complex designs upside down. The necessity for doing this was so that he could sit at his desk opposite his clients and draw plans from their perspective

The reason Williams was compelled to separate himself from his clients with a desk was because his largely white clientele did not feel comfortable sitting side by side with an African American.

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The odds were against Williams from birth. His parents moved with their first son, Chester, from Memphis to Los Angeles in 1893, and Paul was born a year later. His father and mother died of tuberculosis before Williams’ fourth birthday.

According to Williams’ granddaughter, Karen Hudson, who spoke about him to J. Paul Getty Trust president Jim Cuno in an October 2020 edition of his podcast Art + Ideas, Williams “was raised by a foster mother, Mrs. Burnett, who was a friend of the family at First AME Church … Black children were not adopted in those days; they were just taken in by friends. [Mrs. Burnett] had no children. She believed that she was the primary caregiver, and this was her only child. And she doted on him. She made him believe that he could do anything.”

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Town & Country Center.

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Romanoff’s on the Rocks restaurant.

At the turn of the century, L.A.’s African-American community represented only about 3 percent of the population, and housing covenants created segregated South Central neighborhoods. Williams was the only Black student at his elementary school, though the student body was more diverse when he attended Polytechnic High School, where he expressed interest in architecture as a profession. “When I announced that intention to my instructor,” Williams wrote in 1937, “he stared at me with as much astonishment as he would have displayed had I proposed a rocket flight to Mars.”

Nevertheless, Williams excelled. He attended the Los Angeles School of Art and Design and studied landscape architecture with urban planner Wilbur Cook at the L.A. branch of New York’s Beaux-Arts Institute of Design before studying architectural engineering at the University of Southern California from 1919 to 1922.

With patience and a clear eye on the road ahead, he started in his early 20s as a building contractor, learning the materials of his profession. He obtained his architecture license from the state of California in 1921, becoming the first licensed African-American architect west of the Mississippi and the first African-American member of the AIA 1923.

Williams’ entry into architecture and design was well timed. A decade earlier, William Mulholland created an aqueduct that brought water into L.A. and allowed it to grow. By the time Williams hung his shingle, 80 percent of the world’s motion picture production was taking place in the city; the thriving industry helped saved L.A. from the ravages of the Great Depression. From 1900 to 1930, the population grew from 102,000 to more than 1 million. In a single generation, L.A. transformed from a sleepy pueblo to a major metropolitan area — and all those people and businesses needed housing.

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Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz residence in Rancho Mirage.

One of Williams’s early mentors and employers was John Corneby Wilson Austin, an English architect who’d been practicing in the city since 1895 and was responsible for such landmarks as Griffith Park Observatory and Los Angeles City Hall. Austin was a tireless advocate for public works and an excellent draftsman. It was significant that after only three years of working together that Williams became Austin’s head draftsman.

But Williams didn’t depend on any one individual’s goodwill to succeed. In 1920, he gained a seat on the city’s planning commission, which is what initially brought him to Austin’s attention.

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The back pavilion of the Ball-Arnaz home.

LeRonn Brooks, the associate curator for modern and contemporary collections at the Getty Research Institute, noted on the Art + Ideas podcast that it was “a sign of somebody who mastered the sociality of that moment, being able to navigate in white spaces; but it’s the mastery of his craft that placed him in these particular positions. And so, early in his career, his skill is placing him within the best pedigree in Los Angeles, if not in the country.”

As his granddaughter Hudson pointed out, Williams served on the planning commission until his retirement in 1973. He was always involved in community affairs, not only in the Black community, but all of Los Angeles.

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The front entry of the Ball-Arnaz home in Rancho Mirage.

Many of his earliest commissions were public and commercial buildings, such as the 26th Street Elementary School and the 28th Street YMCA. Hudson said Williams’ early residential commissions in exclusive communities like Beverly Hills (where he would not have been allowed to live) were the result of prospective homeowners seeing one of his newly built houses and wanting one like it. The key to his success, Hudson suggests, was that Williams was “such a gentleman and so in tune to providing his clients with what they wanted, as opposed to what he wanted them to have, that he made a name for himself.”

Because of his ability and willingness to manifest his clients’ visions, it is difficult to trace when his own interest in modernism began. His most famous commissions in the early 1930s — Cordhaven for auto magnate E.L. Cord in Beverly Hills and the Jay Paley house in Bel Air — were both neocolonial hybrids, the sort of architectural indulgence that sprang from fantasies of America’s mythical, Southern aristocracy. It did not appear to weigh heavily on Williams’ conscience. Years later, he acknowledged in an interview that it was “fun to spend other people’s money.”

Since Getty acquired Williams’ papers last year, more has been learned about the way he did business and his attitudes toward his work. In his time, Williams was aware of Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as the work of two Austrian architects — Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra — living in nearby West Hollywood. In many ways, Williams was enigmatic. Hudson, in her interview on the Art + Ideas podcast, recalled asking her grandfather once to name his favorite design, and his reply was “the one I’m working on.”

In 1939, Williams made a propitious hire — a recently graduated architecture student, A. Quincy Jones, who’d grown up in Gardena. Though Jones stayed with Williams for only a year, the relationship continued after Jones returned from service in the Navy during World War II. Jones opened up his own office and he and Williams began to collaborate on projects in the desert. Williams was well acquainted with Palm Springs by this time, having received at least four commissions in the desert before the war, including the Spanish Colonial design he created for the Mira Monte Hotel in 1928.

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El Mirador Hotel and pool.

“We don’t really know much about Williams’ office or how he worked with colleagues,” notes architect, author, and preservationist Alan Hess. “What we do know is that Williams was the senior [by 20 years] and more established architect, with good connections to Hollywood. Jones was younger [and] was being recognized as an up-and-coming modern architect. Williams had already moved away from his earlier reputation for traditional designs and to modern designs, so they were both going in the same direction. There are elements of both men’s ideas in their Palm Springs collaboration.”

In 1947, they teamed up to create the additions to the Palm Springs Tennis Club. Commissioned by owner Pearl McCallum McNamus, the duo transformed the existing structure by using wood and stone to bring the interior and exterior spaces into harmony, a vision shared by other desert modernists from Albert Frey to Donald Wexler. Their relatively modest, initial proposal and design grew (along with the budget) to include the Bougainvillea Room, the swimming and tennis spaces, a main dining room, and an outdoor dining area. Williams, who had a reputation for innovation and employing new technologies, made liberal use of concrete for its elasticity and insulative qualities, as well as expanses of glass to bring the beauty of the desert closer to those inside the rooms and a new innovation called central air conditioning.

The next year saw the completion of the Town & Country Center on Palm Canyon Drive. Named after the eponymous restaurant that dominated the project, the shopping center, according to the Paul Revere Williams Project website, was made up of “three two-story buildings with flat roofs and steel frames, constructed around pedestrian arcades and a landscaped, open-air central courtyard. The building that housed the restaurant also included a newspaper office, various retail shops, offices of the Palm Springs Corporation, administrative suites for the center’s owner, and four residential apartments.” The entry about the projects describes how the restaurant “featured natural wood finishes and iconic Eames furnishings. Williams and Jones used wood dividers, intricate vertical trellis, and planters to split the large open area into intimate spaces.”

Brooke Hodge, former director of architecture and design at the Palm Springs Art Museum, explains, “The Town & Country Center was an early and interesting mixed-use project. It was a new retail concept at the time and the various uses were well knit together. It reminds me of Williams and Jones’ work at the [Palm Springs] Tennis Club — similar exterior staircase and plaza elements. It should be preserved because it was an early example of an outdoor shopping center and was a focal point of downtown Palm Springs at the time.”

“When I announced that intention(to be an architect) to my instructor, he stared at me with as much astonishment as he would have displayed had I proposed a rocket flight to Mars.”
— Paul Revere Williams
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MERGE STUDIOSs, 1969. FROM THE CALIFORNIA STATE LIBRARY MOTT-MERGE COLLECTION

Like many other great California architects, Williams’ work has often fallen victim to the wrecking ball of rapacious developers. The Town & Country Center saw years of uncertainty until the Palm Springs Modern Committee began working with other partners toward its preservation. Achieving a Class One Historic Site status and nomination to the National Registry of Historic Places forestalled obliteration by scandal-ridden Wessman Development Company. Now, PS ModCom is working with Grit Development to beautify and make long overdue repairs in order to attract the kind of high-end tenants who will assure the center’s future.

There were several other equally successful Williams-Jones collaborations, including Romanoff’s on the Rocks restaurant in Palm Springs and Pueblo Gardens, a large Del E. Webb residential development in Tucson. In 1950, the collaboration ceased, though as Hess points out, Williams was becoming increasingly busy in the 1950s and ’60s with projects like the L.A. county courthouse and administration building, the Los Angeles International Airport collaboration with Pereira and Beckett, housing tracts in L.A. and Las Vegas, churches, and Vegas’ La Concha Motel, now home to the Neon Museum.

Clearly, modernism struck a deep, personal chord with Williams. Founded in 1925, Golden State Mutual Life was one of the largest Black-owned insurance companies in the United States. When the corporation’s board decided to build a new L.A. headquarters in the West Adams neighborhood in 1946, they chose Williams.

The five-story building that opened in 1949 was a bold modernist statement with the window-less front section marked by three four-story trellises rising to the roof and complementing the two flanking wings facing in different directions. The furnishings were all midcentury modern, and the lobby featured a mural depicting African-American contributions to California since 1781. It was a tremendous source of pride to the community.

Yet Williams’ most telling endorsement of the modernist aesthetic was the design for his own residence. The irony and injustice of the first 30 years of Williams’ career was that the covenants of those communities where he designed of the hundreds of homes — Beverly Hills, Flintridge, Hancock Park, and Lafayette Square — would have legally barred him from owning one of those homes. (Many of those covenants also discriminated against Jews, Asians, actors, and essentially anyone who wasn’t a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.) In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled such covenants unconstitutional. One of the earliest, “exclusive” planned communities near downtown Los Angeles was George Crenshaw’s Lafayette Square.

Palm Springs Tennis Club.

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Williams worked on sections of LAX, but not the Theme Building, as this famous portrait might suggest.

Three years after the court decision, Williams bought a lot in the community and began to plan his own residence. According to Hudson, his prospective neighbors were in a frenzy that “their property values were going down … they circulated petitions … to get him out. He built his own home that he designed. Do you think he was going anywhere? No, he did not. He did not leave.”

While Williams had acquired a reputation for designing houses in a confounding and eclectic mix of styles from neocolonial American to Italianate, his own home reflected his views that urban homes in the future would focus less on presenting views into the home from the street, but would instead orient toward private, enclosed outdoor spaces. With its clean, horizontal lines and flowing wall facing the street, the house managed to be both imposing and discreet. In retrospect, the home is a fitting metaphor for a man who, by necessity, possessed an unassailable public persona while being devoted to his family and community. As Hudson noted, though he counted numerous noteworthy names on his client list, Williams maintained a firm boundary between his professional and personal life.

Though his commissions took him further afield from his L.A. base, he did return to the desert once more in 1954 to execute a design for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in the Thunderbird County Club Estates community. It was located on a huge lot facing the fairway on the 17th hole of the club (and was reputedly won by Arnaz in a poker game). The 4,400-square-foot ranch home contained many of the features and materials representative of Williams’ work in the desert. The graceful curve of the front of the house is a mixture of stone and wood that reflects the surrounding environment it while emphasizing the privacy of the residence. The interior is designed to minimize visible barriers to the pool, entertaining spaces, vast green areas of the golf course, and the mountains.

The ’50s were a golden time for Williams. In addition to Lucy and Desi’s house and his own, Williams designed Sinatra’s famous bachelor pad in Trousdale Estates. And yet, for all his successes and barriers broken, racial and ethnic prejudice remained insidious. One wonders if it might have factored into why Williams never accepted another Coachella Valley commission. Not longer after their Rancho Mirage home was completed, Arnaz applied for membership at Thunderbird Country Club. He was denied.

Neither Cubans nor Blacks were eligible for membership.

• READ NEXT: View the Digital Edition of Palm Springs Life's February 2021 Issue.