In recognition of his five-decade career, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) voted yesterday to honor the late Paul Revere Williams, FAIA (1894 – 1980), with the 2017 AIA Gold Medal. It is a fitting recognition for this trailblazing architect, who was also the Institute’s first black member and inductee into the College of Fellows. Phil Freelon, FAIA, Managing and Design Director at Perkins + Will, who presented to the AIA Board of Directors on behalf of Williams, noted that “this is an important moment in our Institute’s history to recognize and acknowledge the work of a champion … It’s been many decades, but he is finally being recognized for the brilliant work he did over many years.”
LAX Theme Building (1961); via Harvard Design Magazine
Williams, orphaned at the age of four, found support from his foster mother, who nurtured his educational and artistic development. Defying a high school teacher who told him that he was unlikely to attract a white client base, while the black community would not sustain his practice, Williams graduated from the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design and set up shop in southern California in the 1920s.
A confident, adaptable designer, Williams garnered accolades in key competitions, developing an upside-down rendering tactic so that his white clients could view his work from across the table rather than sit next to him. Despite these difficulties, Williams persevered, with his granddaughter Karen Hudson stating, “He found ways to distinguish himself and garner clients.” Echoing Hudson’s statement on Williams is AIA Board member William J. Bates, FAIA, who stated in his support letter, “His pioneering career has encouraged others to cross a chasm of historic biases.”
Palm Springs Tennis Club Addition by Paul R. Williams, 1947; photo: Julius Shulman/J. Paul Getty Trust; via Julius Shulman: Palm Springs
Williams cut his teeth with work on small, affordable homes for new homeowners and revival-style homes for wealthier clientele. With a growing reputation and expanded practice, Williams amassed a portfolio of 2,000 homes with a stellar client list that included Tyrone Power, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Barron Hilton and Frank Sinatra.
Characterizing his residential work was a distinctly southern California style, while his non-residential work, which included schools, hotels, churches and sports clubs, displayed his deft handling of Modernism. Among Paul Revere Williams’ collection of 3,000 projects — with eight listings on the National Register of Historic Places — are the Second Baptist Church, the 1949 Beverly Hills Hotel renovation and the LAX Theme Building.