What do Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Bill Bojangles Robinson and Danny Thomas all have in common besides being famous entertainers? Each one of these celebrities hired an African American architect to design and build their homes. His name was Paul Revere Williams who became the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1923.
Born in 1894, Paul’s early beginnings were quite challenged being orphaned at age four and raised by a foster mom. He was intentionally discouraged at school from pursuing architecture as a career with the excuse that whites would not hire him and blacks could not afford to pay him. Nonetheless, Paul persevered and completed his studies at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design and at the Los Angeles branch of the New York Beaux-Arts Institute of Design Atelier. At 25 he won an architectural competition and eventually opened his own office several years later. He earned his certification as an architect in 1921 and went on to design more than 3000 buildings over a remarkable career spanning 50 years. A few of his most famous public buildings include the futuristic theme building at the Los Angeles Airport, Saks Fifth Avenue Beverly Hills, Los Angeles County Courthouse, and the Beverly Hills Hotel. However, his heart remained with family residences which he designed and built not only for the rich and famous but for every day men and women who desired comfortable, beautiful and affordable housing. He gave generously of his time to good causes including the design and construction of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital at no charge for his dear friend Danny Thomas.
Williams fought prejudice in his own elegant style. He taught himself to draw architectural plans upside down to avoid sitting beside his white clients and making them uncomfortable. He would survey construction sites with his hands held behind his back, only offering to shake hands if his clients made the first move. He joined numerous associations to build his name and develop a network of loyal consumers. His homes which have become significant historic landmarks are prized by real estate firms and snapped up as soon as they come on the market.
Williams retired in 1980 at the age of 80 and died from diabetes five years later. The AIA recognized his achievements this year by awarding the Gold Medal posthumously. This is the highest honor awarded by this organization to highlight the vast influence and contributions to the field of architecture by one of its most treasured members.
Not a bad resume for a young man who was told he’d never achieve his dream. We honor Paul Williams with this Black History Month salute for not only being an icon in his field but even more importantly a giant among men!
To learn more about the legacy of Paul Revere Williams check out the resources below:
Book: The Will and the Way: Paul R. Williams, Architect by Karen E. Hudson
Paul Williams: A Legend in Architecture, Youtube video
National Public Radio recording: A Trail-blazing Black Architect Who Helped Shape Los Angeles
To give your little architect a head start check out these wonderful children’s books that inspire young builders. You can also check out my summaries of these books at the AskDrMarta Facebook page or on the Ask Dr. Marta Blog.
Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building by Christy Hale. This beautiful read displays real architectural wonders alongside pictures of children using hands on materials to create those same buildings.
Block City by Robert Lewis Stevenson and illustrated by Daniel Kirk. A classic poem from a great America poet with illustrations of a child’s imagination taking flight in the many creative designs he builds with his toy blocks.
Iggy Peck Architect by Andrea Beaty with illustrations by David Roberts. This amusing rhyming tale tells the story of a boy who longs to build the creations he sees in his mind but must overcome the obstacles that grownups place in his way.
Looking for a Stem connection? Check out the links below!