Monday, February 10, 2014

More Than "Architect to the Stars"

Paul R. Williams

Hello Everyone:

First, I was checking the page view count this morning and all I can say OMG.  You all are the most amazing group of people I've ever had the pleasure of talking to.  We're almost to our goal of 10,000 page views world-wide.  What an accomplishment.  In A little over a year, you've taken this `exercise I set up for myself and made part of your lives.  I'm truly humbled by your overwhelming support.  Now on to today's topic, the life and legacy of Paul R. Williams.

On Wednesday February 5, 2014 I attended an extremely fascinating lecture and exhibit titled "Against All Odd...From Orphan to "Architect to the Stars": The Legacy of Paul R. Williams."  I first heard about the life and work of this prolific architect at a panel discussion I attended at the 2009 College Art Association Conference in Los Angeles.  The subject of the panel was his public housing project, Langston Terrace in Washington D.C.  As I moved through the Historic Preservation program at my alma mater, I kept hearing his name come in lecture and discussions.  Curious to learn more, I attended the lecture.  The presentation was put on by the USC School of Architecture, The Black Alumni Association, and Visions and Voices cultural program.  The keynote speaker of the evening was Karen E. Hudson, a third generation Angeleno and the granddaughter of Paul R. Williams.  A panel discussion moderated by Wren T. Brown with panelists: Benny Chan founder of Fotoworks, Ms. Hudson, Marshell E. Purnell FAIA former president of the AIA (2008) and National Organization of Minority Architects (1985, 1986), Trudi Sandmeier director of the USC School of Architecture Master of Heritage Conservation programThe exhibit was designed by Val Augustin and curated by Ms. Sandmeier.  Today's post will present a general discussion Paul R. Williams' life and selected projects.

Vintage Paul R. Williams image
Paul R. Williams was born in Los Angeles, California on February 18, 1894 to Lila Wright Williams and Chester Stanley Williams, recent arrivals from Memphis, Tennessee. Mr. Williams was orphaned at an early age when his father passed away and his mother passed two years later.  Both he and his brother, Chester, Jr., were placed in separate foster homes.  Paul R. Williams was fortunate to be placed with a foster mother who encouraged his education and artistic talent.  Paul Williams attended Los Angeles Polytechnic High School, where he was discouraged by teachers from pursuing a career in architecture.  He was told, be a lawyer, a doctor, or a teacher, so he would have clientele of his own kind.  To put this in proper context, Los Angeles in the early twentieth century was a vibrant multi-ethnic, multi-racial city.  Despite this vibrant urban environment, segregation still existed.  In the face of this, Mr. Williams still believed in his own vision of Los Angeles.  Confident in himself and his skills, Mr. Williams pursued his architectural studies at USC, earning prizes for his work and the respect of his colleagues.  In 1922, he opened his own office and in 1923 he became the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects.

Zasu Pitts Residence
Los Angeles, Ca c.1930s
The twenties and thirties saw Paul R. Williams' greatest success in designing homes for wealthy clients living in Bel Air, Brentwood, and Beverly Hills.  Mr. Williams became  sought after by the entertainment industry designing homes for Lon Chaney, Sr., Zasu Pitts, Tyrone Power, and Barbara Stanwyck.  His work with the famous and infamous of Hollywood earned him the moniker "Architect to the Hollywood Star."  Residential work remained at the heart of Paul R. Williams' practice but he also took on commissions for commercial and institutional work.  Paul R. Williams' work extended beyond Southern California, opening an office in Bogota, Colombia.  At the height of his career, Paul R. Williams employed fifty-seven people in his office, maintaining a certain level of decorum.  Over the course of a five decade long career, Paul R. Williams  designed about 3,000 buildings and state on federal, state and local commissions such as the first Los Angeles Planning Commission.  Paul R. Williams retired from practice in 1973 and passed away in 1980, at the age of eighty-five.
Langston Terrace
Washington D.C. c. 1920-1950
One of Paul R. Williams' biggest interests was in small affordable homes.  Between 1935 and 1938, Mr. Williams participated in the design and construction of Langston Terrace, the first federally funded housing project in Washington D.C.  The housing development was sponsored by the Public Works Administration and reflected the design philosophy of Hilyard Robinson, who believed in modern housing as social reform.  Langston Terrace was designed using streamlined International style before it became fashionable for public housing projects.  The use of thirties moderne in public housing was innovative for its time and served as a prototype for future developments.  The overall design scheme of Langston Terrace mirrored Mr. Robinson's faith in the European model of
John Mercer Langston 1829-1897
large-scale housing and urban planning, coupled with Mr. Williams' desire to foster a sense of community and pride among its residents.  What makes Langston Terrace significant is that it was one of the first federally public housing projects in the United States and named for John Mercer Langston, the first African-American elected to Congress during Reconstruction. 

During the lecture, Karen E. Hudson was keen to point out the her grandfather was a champion for Civil Rights.  Unlike his contemporaries who were taking a more active stance, Mr. Williams, in his own quiet and dignified manner.  In an obituary for H. Claude Hudson, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Los Angeles African-American community leader, published in the Los Angeles Times on January 28, 1989 described Paul R. Williams as "deferential to a fault."  Indeed Ms. Hudson noted that her grand father would always keep his hands either behind his back or at his sides so as to avoid forcing his (white) clients to shake his hand.  There is a lesson to be learned here, there is a time and a place for everything, a time to extend an open hand and a time to raise a fist.

The Beverly Hills Hotel
Perhaps one of Paul R. Williams best-known commissions was the renovation of the fabled Beverly Hills Hotel.  The hotel was originally designed by Elmer Grey in the early twentieth century and immediately became a favorite waterhole for the Hollywood glitterati.  The hotel fell on hard times during the Depression and by 1940, was in need of a face lift.  In 1941, Hernando Courtright and group purchased the "Pink Lady," commissioning Paul R. Williams and the interior design firm of Paul Laszlo & John Luccareni and Harriet Shellenberger to redesign the lobby.  The designers used the distinctive banana leaf wallpaper for wall covering and gave the hotel its très chic pink, green, and white color scheme.  The Beverly Hill Hotel was the first many at the hotel for Mr. Williams.  During the forties, he designed many additions and alterations, freshening up the Mission-style hotel.

Paul R. Williams suite
Beverly Hills Hotel
Mr. Williams was often criticized for mixing styles but it wasn't a random mix and match, rather, it was more of a deliberate use of styles to create a cohesive and coherent building that with stands the test of time.  Paul R. Williams was also a big believer in adaptive reuse.  Why tear an old building down when it can be repurposed.  One example of his deliberate mixing of styles was in this beautiful namesake suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel.  The rough masonry in the wall seems to echo the Arts and Crafts Movement which mixes with a softer, less graphic version of Hollywood Regency.  The elegant sweeping curve gracefully moves across the ceiling, echoing automobile tail fins.  The overall effect is one of stunning elegance and simplicity.  It is luxurious without being overpowering.

LAX Theme Building
 Finally, the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport is, perhaps, the building most closely associated with Paul R. Williams.  Mr. Williams was part of a team of architects that included Welton Becket & Associates and Pererira & Luckman Associates who were commissioned to work on the Los Angeles Jet Age Terminal Construction project.  Construction began in 1960 and was completed in August 1961 at a cost of $50 million.  The Theme Building became an "instant" landmark, representing L.A.'s embrace of the space age.  It has been commonly believed that the Theme Building was designed by Paul R. Williams, in fact the famous photograph by Julius Shulman
Paul R. Williams at the Theme Building
photograph by Julius Shulman
supports this notion, according to Dana Goodyear's 2005 New Yorker essay, this was not true.  Ms. Goodyear wrote that Mr. Williams was not on the design team for the iconic building but part of a joint venture to design the airport.  This theory was supported in 2009 when Alfred E, Willis of Hampstead University presented a paper at the 2009 CAA conference, which supports Ms. Goodyear's claims.

The lecture and panel discussion provided illuminating insights into the life and legacy of Paul R. Williams.  His is a story that needs to be told.  It was the brilliant work of Paul R. Williams that architectural defined Los Angeles in the mid-century.  The work of this master will forever stand the test of time.  Thank you Karen E. Hudson for shining a light on your grandfather's legacy of simplicity and elegance.

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