Paul R. Williams: The Man Who Helped Build L.A, “Architect to the Stars”

Paul R. Williams was born on February 18, 1894. He is a well-known American architect based in Los Angeles, California. In 1921, he became a certified architect in California and the first certified black architect west of the Mississippi.

His Early Life

Picture of Paul R. Williams
Paul Revere Williams 1917 (Public Domain)

Paul Revere Williams was born into a middle-class family of Chester Stanley and Lila Wright Williams, shortly after his parents moved to Los Angeles from Memphis, Tennessee. When he was 4 years old, his father died in 1896 from tuberculosis and a few years later, his mother died from the same illness. He was later adopted by Mr. Clarkson and his wife.  On June 27, 1917, Williams got married to Della Mae Givens at the First AME Church in Los Angeles. They were survived by three children: Paul Revere Williams Jr; Marilyn Frances Williams, and Norma Lucille Williams.

His Education

Mr. Williams was the only African American student in his early school days. He studied at the School of Art and Design in Los Angeles and the Los Angeles branch of the New York Beaux-Arts Institute of Design Atelier. With time, he worked as a landscape architect under Wilbur Cook, Jr. 

Interested in engineering, he studied architecture from 1916 to 1919 at the University of Southern California. There, he got a degree and as a student, began to design various structures and buildings for residents.

A year later, he founded his business called the Paul R. Williams and Associates and was given license to practice in Tennessee, Washington D.C, and New York.

Architect Career

Paul R. Williams broke a racial record by becoming a civic leader and the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

In 1912, soon after he graduated from High school, he got lots of internships and jobs at local architecture companies. Though he was discouraged, Williams moved further to take classes at the Los Angeles Beaux-Arts School.

He was later appointed to the first Los Angeles City Planning Commission. After which he became a certified architect and began working under the great John C. Austin. Opening his practice in 1923 was a big achievement, even as he served as an architect for the Navy during World War II.

Sometime in his career, Williams became interested in prefabricated structures. He decided to work with Wallace Neff to design experimental small structures that took a few days and materials to construct.

Awards and Recognition

Paul R. Williams Poster
Poster from Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. News Bureau, 1943

In 1951, Williams won the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, Man of the Year award. He received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 1953, for his wonderful outstanding contributions as an architect and full-time member of the African-American community.

Paul R. Williams also received honorary doctorates from;

  • Lincoln University of Missouri (doctor of science, 1941) 
  • Howard University (doctor of architecture, 1952)
  • Tuskegee Institute (doctor of fine arts, 1956).

He won an award in 1956 for a great service and contributions to mankind. The following year, he was awarded as the first Black member of the AIA’s College of Fellows.

His Death

Williams later retired in 1973, many years after opening his practice. At age 85, he died from diabetes on January 23, 1980. His funeral was held at a Church he designed, and the presiding minister, Rev. Cecil Murray, was joined in the pulpit by Dr. William H.D. 

On October 29, 2015, a memorial plaza was dedicated to Paul Williams, for the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building, as part of its recent renovation.

Interesting Facts

  • At the age of 25, he won an architectural competition. 
  • He served on the first Los Angeles City Planning Commission in 1920.
  • In 1923, Williams became the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects (A.I.A.). 
  • In 1939, he won the A.I.A. Award of Merit for his design of the Music Corporation of America (M.C.A.) Building in Beverly Hills. (currently Paradigm Talent Agency).
  • Williams worked for the Navy Department as an architect, During World War II,
  • He designed over 2,000 buildings. 
  • Williams designed homes in Hollywood for many celebrities, including Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Lon Chaney, Barbara Stanwyck, and Frank Sinatra.
  • In 1962, he designed St. Jude Hospital in Memphis, TN for free.

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