The Pioneers We Hail: Paul Williams

The Pioneers We Hail: Paul Williams

What do Lucille Ball, a megachurch, and St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital have in common? Architect Paul Williams.

Williams designed thousands of buildings in his long and prolific career, beating the odds for a kid orphaned at age four and Black in early 20th Century America. He overcame his high school teacher's warning to drop his unrealistic dream of becoming an architect and became the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), its first Fellow, and posthumously, the recipient of its Gold Medal Award.

He is well known as Hollywood's Architect for designing mansions for a star-studded gallery of clients such as Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Lon Chaney, Danny Thomas, Cary Grant, and Barbara Stanwyck. The Southern California mansions are exquisite: integrating inside and outside, cleanly modern yet softly comfortable, sweeping staircases, gorgeous detailing. He focused on creating personal spaces for each client, so there is no one style; he was a master of many, helping to define Southern California architecture.

But there's so much more to his career and his personal contributions. Williams designed notable commercial and institutional projects, some listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One that interests me is the First AME Church of Los Angeles, where he was a lifetime member. He donated his services twice, first designing a renovation and addition to the existing church, and in 1964 with an expanding congregation, he designed a new church seating 5,000 in the sanctuary. He was married in that sanctuary, and in 1980 his funeral service was held there. That's personal.
Photo credit: Laurie Avocado, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
In another instance of generosity, he designed the original St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital for free for his friend and client Danny Thomas. And while creating mansions for Hollywood's elite must have been profitable for his business, he did not forget his modest roots and authored two volumes of house plans that anyone could use. In fact, before he designed his own home, he lived very modestly in a less affluent area while he designed mansions for stars and business moguls. He noted that he could afford it, but deed restrictions would not allow an African American to own property in upscale neighborhoods.

In his essay "I Am a Negro," American Magazine (July 1937) he says:

I came to realize that I was being condemned, not by lack of ability, but by my color. I passed through successive stages of bewilderment, inarticulate protest, resentment, and, finally, reconciliation to the status of my race. Eventually, however, as I grew older and thought more clearly, I found in my condition an incentive to personal accomplishment, and inspiring challenge. Without having the wish to "show them," I developed a fierce desire to "show myself." I wanted to vindicate every ability I had. I wanted to acquire new abilities. I wanted to prove that I, as an individual, deserved a place in the world.

He dealt with prejudice by walking job sites with his hands behind his back, waiting for others to offer their hand first, so physical contact wasn't forced. He also developed a talent for drawing upside down so clients could sit across the table from him rather than shoulder to shoulder. Another quote from the same essay sheds light on this practice and his business acumen.

I spent hours learning to draw upside down. Then, with a prospective client seated across the desk from me, I would rapidly begin to sketch the living room of his house. Invariably, his interest would be excited by the trick. But it was more than a trick, for, as the room developed before his eyes, I would ask for suggestions and for approval of my own ideas. He became a full partner in the birth of that room.


I believe Paul Williams did prove that he deserved a place in the world. Not only that, but he made the world a little easier for those of us who follow in his footsteps.

For more information on Paul Williams' remarkable career: