LA’s Architectural Gems – Paul R. Williams
This edition of our LA Architectural Gems series celebrates the work of LA native Paul R. Williams, a pioneering African American architect who designed numerous iconic buildings in the city. During an age when racial prejudice was strong, he overcame barriers to become known as the architect to the stars, designing homes for Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball and as well as the brilliant mind behind the conceptual design and redesign of many iconic L.A. landmarks such as the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building on West Adams Blvd in Jefferson, the Shrine Auditorium near USC and the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Photo courtesy of the Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
One of Williams’ most prestigious projects was the original Saks Fifth Avenue at 9600 Wilshire, designed in the 1930s by the architectural firm John Parkinson and Donald B. Parkinson, Architects. Credited as the “Architect for the Interiors”, he designed both the exteriors and interiors of the expanded Beverly Hills store in 1940 and 1948. The most marked feature of Williams’ design was the complete absence of an overt commercial atmosphere in the store. The effect was of a series of small, distinguished individual shops, forerunners of the in-store boutique designs of the 1980s and 1990s.
Photo by Laurie Avocado
Williams was considered a master of many styles, from English Tudor to Spanish Colonial and the casual California ranch-style, and this variety can be seen throughout the city including the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in West Adams. As a lifetime member of the congregation, he helped develop plans for the Late Modern design in 1963. Upon completion two years later, the building offered 5,000 sanctuary seats and many modern amenities, such as an auditorium, facilities for medical care and counseling, and underground parking.
Photo courtesy of Benjamin Kahle with Deasy/Penner
Outside of commercial, community and municipal work, Williams designed nearly 2,000 homes in LA alone during his career. One of these homes included 4351 Mount Vernon Drive in historic View Park. Commissioned by his personal friends, the honorable Dauterive family, he designed and built a custom Asian inspired mid-century for their lifelong family home in the early 1960s. Recently sold, the home showcases classic original mid-century details such as sliding wooden room dividers, stone fireplace and terrazzo floors. See more details about the home here.
Photo by Benny Chan, courtesy of Deasy/Penner
One of Williams’ most famous homes is the one that he designed and built for him and his family in Lafayette Square in 1952. It was unlike the properties he was building at that time for Hollywood personalities in Beverly Hills and Flintridge was also distinctive from the other homes in the neighborhood. The Paul R Williams Project notes that the International-modern design “with its clean lines, smooth outer skin, soft interior architectural curves and space for extensive indoor/outdoor living illustrated his personal design taste in California living.” The home was designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1976.
To learn more about Paul R. Williams and find out about his other works click here.