Paul Williams: The Trailblazing Black Architect Who Helped Shape L.A. When Paul Williams decided to become an architect, people told him no white clients would work with an African-American. But he persevered, eventually designing thousands of buildings, including the Beverly Hills Hotel and homes for stars like Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball.
NPR logo

A Trailblazing Black Architect Who Helped Shape L.A.

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Trailblazing Black Architect Who Helped Shape L.A.

A Trailblazing Black Architect Who Helped Shape L.A.

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is the end of our week broadcasting here from Southern California, so it's fitting that we end our series on West Coast Innovators with the story of the man whose architecture helped transmit the idea of Southern California to the rest of the country.

Paul Revere Williams began designing homes and commercial buildings in the early 1920s. By the time he died in 1980, he'd created some 2,500 buildings, most of them in and around Los Angeles, but also around the world and he did it as a pioneer. Paul Williams was African-American.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has been reporting on Williams' life and work and she joins me here in the studio. Hi, Karen.


BLOCK: And, you know, when we first started bouncing around this idea of innovators, right away, you came back and said, let's do Paul Williams.

BATES: Yeah.

BLOCK: Why? How did you learn about him?

BATES: Well, when I first moved to Los Angeles, several people, in trying to acquaint me with the city, would take me on tours and everybody would always go past this one house and point it out as the house of Paul Williams, a prominent black architect. In fact, he was the first black member of the AIA, the American Institute of Architects.

BLOCK: When was that?

BATES: Nineteen twenty-three. So, a few years later, I met his granddaughter, Karen Hudson, when she was in the process of writing her first book on his work and I became fascinated with two things. First, the fact that a black man was doing this kind of work back then and how forward-looking a lot of the details in his homes were. He created grand houses for wealthy people, but they weren't stiff and formal. They took advantage of the climate and the sort of relaxed Southern California lifestyle. You can see some of those on our website.

BLOCK: I'm looking at them right now, Karen, at and they're lovely. There are a lot of windows, a lot of natural light coming in, really open to the environment.

BATES: Yeah. He really believed in sort of trying to erase the line of demarcation between the outdoors and the indoors.

BLOCK: And, Karen, you're going to tell us about a party that you went to for a new book on Paul Williams' celebrity clients.

BATES: Yes. It's called "Paul R. Williams: Classic Hollywood Style," also by his granddaughter, Karen Hudson. Let's eavesdrop on that book party.

PETER MULLIN: It's great to have you all here today, particularly to celebrate Karen and her book and her grandfather and a beautiful Southern California day.

BATES: Before introducing author Karen Hudson, host Peter Mullin confesses to his garden full of well-healed guests that he was attracted to the house they're standing before without knowing much about its creator.

MULLIN: Frankly, I didn't know anything about Paul Williams at the time, but I did love the architecture of this house and quickly learned about Paul Williams and what an extraordinary talent he was.

BATES: All the more so because when Williams began his career, there were no black architects he could find as role models or mentors. Born in downtown Los Angeles in 1894, Williams became orphaned before he was four when both his parents died of tuberculosis. A family friend raised him and told him he was so bright, he could do anything he wanted.

He wanted to design homes for families, perhaps because he lost his own so early in life. His work has come to signify Southern California glamour to the rest of the country and the world. The bright, airy rooms and the oversized windows that, as he put it, bring the outdoors in are common now, but weren't when Williams began practicing in the early 1920s.

Peter Mullin remembers how he felt when he saw his 1925 colonial.

MULLIN: The first time I saw it, I thought, with the beautiful pillars and the Georgian colonial style and I went inside to the front entry hall and looked at that spiraling staircase and I didn't think I could afford the house, but if I could afford the staircase, I wanted to take it with me.

BATES: He's not alone. That gracefully curving staircase is one of Williams' signatures. It shows up in most of his private homes and in many of his commercial buildings.

BRET PARSONS: The ubiquitous trademark is the stair hall. He did the most beautiful entry halls I've ever seen.

BATES: Bret Parsons is head of the architectural division of John Aaroe, a Beverly Hills realtor that handles multimillion dollar properties. When Williams' homes come on the market, Parsons says, they sell almost immediately. One allure is the man's personal history.

PARSONS: He was an African-American practicing in Southern California in the '30s and '40s when that just wasn't done.

BATES: The other draw, the undisputed quality of his designs.

PARSONS: His work stands the test of time. He had a sublime ability to master style and proportion.

BATES: It's what attracted so many of Hollywood's A-list celebrities during Williams' long career. He built an elegant bachelor pad for Frank Sinatra when the singer was between marriages. Lucille Ball and husband Desi Arnaz were clients. So was Cary Grant. Danny Thomas was both client and friend. Williams designed St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis, gratis, as a favor to Thomas. In recent years, Denzel and Pauletta Washington, Ellen DeGeneres and Andy Garcia have lived in Williams' homes.

At the Beverly Hills Hotel, Williams designed its iconic Polo Lounge, among other parts. Actor-philanthropist Bill Cosby thinks back to when he and his wife Camille went house hunting after the TV series, "I Spy," made Cosby famous. They wanted a specific kind of home.

BILL COSBY: Brick is not conducive to the heat of the desert which is Los Angeles, but we were looking for brick.

BATES: To the East Coast Cosbys, brick symbolized money to refinement. They were shown the 1932 brick colonial revival that seemed to float above rolling lawns and, he remembers, they felt immediately comfortable in it.

COSBY: The entry was grand, but once one entered the house, it became a home.

BATES: Sitting in the 1951 home Paul Williams designed for himself, Karen Hudson says her grandfather taught himself to draw upside down, so white clients wouldn't be uncomfortable sitting next to him. Many of the neighborhoods in which his homes were located were closed to him because of his race.

KAREN HUDSON: By law, he could not live in some of the places, particularly in Flintridge, where he designed his first home in his own office. The land deed said a black person could not even spend the night.

BATES: She says Williams found a way to work around such barriers because he had an ultimate goal in mind.

HUDSON: He believed that for every home and every commercial building that he could not buy and that he could not live in, he was opening doors for the next generation.

BATES: So, Melissa, now people in Los Angeles can pretty much live where they'd like to, so that part of the door opening worked. We have a little work to do on the architectural end of it. There was a recent survey that showed that less than two percent of the nation's registered architects are African-American.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates, thank you.

BATES: You're welcome.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.