The Architect of Hollywood

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Picture for a minute Los Angeles, the Grand Marquis downtown, the Spanish-style mansions in the hills, the Jetsons-like diners and drive-ins. Los Angeles is an architectural potpourri.

Avery Trufelman:
It’s the kind of place where if you want to go and build a house that looks like a Dutch Colonial, or a mansion with Doric columns, or a sleek, modernist, flat-roofed thing, that’s fine. Anything goes.

Roman Mars:
That’s Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman:
In Los Angeles, architecturally, there are no rules, no unifying style, because for people flocking to Hollywood in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, the growing city gave them an opportunity to build whatever kind of house they wanted – French chateau, futuristic modern, Italian villa, whatever. There was this one particular architect who could do it all and do it well, and his name was Paul Revere Williams.

Phil Freelon:
Paul Williams’ contribution to American architecture can be described in a number of different ways.

Avery Trufelman:
This is architect Phil Freelon.

Phil Freelon:
He was a incredibly gifted residential designer, and on the West Coast, particularly in Los Angeles, he was known for designing residences of a number of Hollywood stars.

Avery Trufelman:
Paul Williams designed Frank Sinatra’s bachelor pad, a mansion for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. He made additions on the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Palm Springs Tennis Club. He also helped design the stately and sparse LA County Courthouse, and if you’ve ever flown into LAX, you can see this really space-agey looking structure, almost like a flying saucer with long legs that landed in front of Terminal One. That’s called the Theme Building, and Paul Williams was part of the team that made that.

Phil Freelon:
And the sheer volume of his work, he produced over 3,000 projects in his career, in his 50-year career. That’s quite an achievement.

Roman Mars:
No one is exactly sure how many buildings he worked on. It’s certainly in the thousands, but still, he was largely an invisible figure in architectural history, as well as Los Angeles’s history.

Avery Trufelman:
He designed everything, from mansions, luxury hotels, and car dealerships, to hospitals, housing projects, and public schools.

Roman Mars:
In addition to the variety of Williams’ commissions, he could work in a huge variety of styles. Seriously, if you pick two of his buildings at random, in most cases, you’d never know that the same architect made them both.

Phil Freelon:
So, he really didn’t have a particular signature move, or a form or material usage that you could drive up and say, ‘That’s a Paul Williams building,’ but if you look at the body of work, there is a level of excellence, and a consistency in the quality of the work, not in necessarily, in a stylistic manner.

Avery Trufelman:
He is the architect who helped make the multi-style style of Los Angeles, and Los Angeles, in turn, helped make him.

Roman Mars:
In Los Angeles, Paul Williams was able to build a career for himself that he probably couldn’t have had anywhere else in America as an African-American architect.

Karen Hudson:
Paul Williams was an African-American architect who was much more than an African-American architect. He was simply one of the best architects of the 20th century.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Karen Hudson, Paul Williams’ biographer, and also his granddaughter.

Karen Hudson:
I was very close to him. I grew up a block away.

Avery Trufelman:
Hudson says the Los Angeles her grandfather grew up in back in the early 1900s was pretty different from what it is now.

Karen Hudson:
I mean, it was open spaces. He was born downtown, 8th and Santee. Downtown was the heart of LA. We’re talking 1894.

Roman Mars:
In 1894, when Williams was born, Los Angeles was pretty much a small downtown surrounded with bean fields and orange groves and the wild Pacific, and the population of LA was skyrocketing. From 1890 to 1900, the city doubled from 50,000 to 100,000 residents in just 10 years. The growing city was full of people that had come West for a better life.

Avery Trufelman:
Paul Williams’ parents were from Memphis and had moved to Los Angeles just before he was born. They came to California for their health because they both had tuberculosis.

Karen Hudson:
That’s how he was orphaned before he was four.

Avery Trufelman:
Williams was raised by foster parents. He had a brother who was nine years older than him, who was raised in a different family and died at a young age of pneumonia. Without much of a family of his own, Williams spent a lot of time in the neighborhood in downtown LA, which was full of immigrants from all over the world.

Karen Hudson:
I mean, he talks about learning conservation and gardening and things from the Japanese kids in the neighborhood. So, he sort of soaked all that up.

Roman Mars:
This diverse group of kids all went to school together, even though Paul Williams remembers being the only black kid.

Karen Hudson:
There were no segregated schools in LA. There weren’t that many black kids, but they weren’t segregated.

Avery Trufelman:
This would be instrumental later in life when his high school connections would prove very valuable in Paul Williams’ career.

Roman Mars:
It’s hard to say exactly where Williams’ desire to be an architect came from.

Avery Trufelman:
He did have a natural talent for drawing. Then, somehow, he learned that architecture was a profession, and then resolutely decided it was for him, which is kind of incredible when you think about it.

Karen Hudson:
He never knew another architect, never really even heard of another architect when he was young.

Roman Mars:
When Williams told his high school guidance counselor that he wanted to practice architecture, he was told to give it up.

Karen Hudson:
He should not try to be an architect. He should be a doctor or a lawyer because black people would always need doctors and lawyers, and white people would not hire him as an architect, and black people couldn’t afford him. So, he should just give up. Didn’t happen.

Avery Trufelman:
Williams didn’t go to architecture school. Instead, he attended different art schools and engineering school, just cobbling together the skills he needed in drafting, landscaping, and materials before he was certified as a contractor in 1915.

Roman Mars:
Then came the challenge of actually getting hired.

Karen Hudson:
On his own notes, he said he got dressed in his best suit and, which he probably only had one for church, but best suit. Had his little briefcase, and he went knocking on doors.

Avery Trufelman:
He approached all the architects in the area that he admired and showed them his portfolio. They all said no.

Karen Hudson:
But if they smiled when they said no, then he went back the next day and kept knocking. Finally, he got two offers, one for three dollars a week, maybe five, and one for nothing, but he took the job that was for nothing because he thought he would learn more and be in a better position to advance. After the first week, they started paying him.

Roman Mars:
Paul Williams worked for a landscape architect, a residential architect, and a commercial architect before he was licensed to practice in California in 1921. The following year, he started his own firm, Paul R. Williams and Associates.

Avery Trufelman:
Williams’ first solo commission was a house for a well-connected high school friend, and as neighborhoods in Los Angeles blossomed, word about Williams spread.

Karen Hudson:
In the ’20s or early ’30s, if you go to dinner at somebody’s house and, because they have a new house, they say, “Who’s your architect?” There’s one more, one more, one more.

Roman Mars:
Williams had an impeccable sense of scale, and he knew just how to situate a structure on a property to make best use of beautiful views and sunlight.

Avery Trufelman:
He helped create what would come to be known as the “Hollywood Style”, that opulent mixture of Mediterranean, European, and Colonial influences, with swimming pools and sweeping staircases. It’s a rich and sumptuous sensibility, but Paul Williams kept these mentions very clean and classy. Paul R. Williams and Associates grew quickly and became renowned.

Roman Mars:
Although, some clients would be taken aback when they met Williams.

Karen Hudson:
Because they may have read about him, may have heard about him, but they didn’t realize he was black. He didn’t want people to be uncomfortable, and, often, they were. I mean, it’s one thing to hire somebody. It’s one thing to think that he’s the best around, and you want the best around. It’s another thing to actually touch him.

Avery Trufelman:
Many of his white clients had never interacted with a black professional before. Williams had to find ways to work around white people’s discomfort with him.

Karen Hudson:
He would not put people in a position where they felt like they had to shake his hand if they didn’t want to.

Avery Trufelman:
So, he would put his hands in his pockets, or behind his back. Williams also recognized that many clients wouldn’t want to take a seat next to him.

Karen Hudson:
So, to make them feel comfortable, and to possibly persuade people who weren’t sure about having this black man, he could sit on one side of the desk, you’d be on the other side, and he would ask you, “Do you want a formal living room? Do you want a formal dining room? Do you want a den because you have little kids? Do you want this? Do you want that?”

Roman Mars:
Then, facing the client opposite the table, Paul Williams would sketch out a vision of the house upside down so that it faced the client

Karen Hudson:
He would sketch it upside down. It’d come alive before your eyes. I never interviewed anyone who saw him do it, who did not just light up as soon as we talked about it. It was like, “You should have seen him.”

Roman Mars:
You’ve heard the expression, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.” Well, Paul Williams did everything his white peers did, except upside down and better.

Avery Trufelman:
Williams was not the first architect to draw upside down, but it’s indicative of the lengths he went to accommodate his white clients. He always dressed impeccably and worked tirelessly. He once wrote about a meeting with a potential client who warned Williams that he was also speaking with a number of other architects. The potential client asked how soon Williams could submit preliminary drawings. “Four o’clock tomorrow afternoon,” said Williams. The client thought it was impossible because all the other architects had asked for two or three weeks.

Roman Mars:
You can bet that, yes, Paul Williams delivered that plan at four o’clock the next day, as promised, but he didn’t tell the client that he had worked for 22 hours straight without eating or sleeping.

Karen Hudson:
He felt like he had to be light years better just to be accepted, and, often, he wasn’t accepted.

Avery Trufelman:
Sometimes, Williams was unwelcome in the very places he was designing, and even after he had earned the respect of his clients, he had to tolerate mistreatment from subcontractors and painters and plumbers.

Karen Hudson:
You hire him to do your home, and then some of the sub people who are working on the home are like, “I’m not taking orders from this black guy.” It’s a regular kind of thing.

Avery Trufelman:
Throughout his career, even as he designed mansions for wealthy clients, Williams also designed affordable homes for middle-class Angelenos, and he published books of inexpensive construction patterns that anyone could use to build a home of their own.

Karen Hudson:
You could send in for $10 and get a floor plan for your house.

Roman Mars:
Williams also worked on a number of projects specifically for black institutions, including buildings on Howard University’s campus in D.C. and the 28th Street YMCA which is in a historically black neighborhood in LA.

Karen Hudson:
28th Street Y was very important to him. He put in the facade likenesses of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington because he believed that if young black boys could see that excellence every day as they walked in, it would make them a different kind of person. He did a lot of charitable work. He did lots of things for children, and not just in the African-American community.

Avery Trufelman:
When he designed St. Jude’s Research Hospital in Memphis, he did it completely free of charge.

Roman Mars:
He simply was one of the most prolific architects of his time, of any race. He produced thousands of projects in his 50-year career. He died in 1980, and his funeral was held in a church of his own design, filled with friends, family, and past clients. Paul R. Williams and Associates continued working without him for a while.

Leslie Luebbers:
Well, after he died in 1980, the office went on for a couple of years. I’m not quite sure how long it … but it essentially came to an end some time by the end of the ’80s.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Leslie Luebbers of the University of Memphis.

Leslie Luebbers:
Then, all of the material from his practice was stored at a branch of the Broadway Federal Savings Banks.

Avery Trufelman:
This branch was a building Williams designed.

Leslie Luebbers:
He designed it, but the more important thing was that one of his daughters married the founder of Broadway Federal, so it was essentially a family relationship.

Avery Trufelman:
Most of Williams’ documents and records were just there in the bank, stored in a room. They weren’t even in a vault.

Roman Mars:
Then, in 1992, after a group of officers were acquitted of the brutal beating of Rodney King, the city of LA erupted into violent protest.

Leslie Luebbers:
That branch of Broadway Federal burned to the ground, and everything in it burned to the ground. That was pretty much the end of everything available about Paul Williams.

Roman Mars:
This is where the ‘Paul Williams Project’ comes in.

Leslie Luebbers:
The ‘Paul Williams Project’ is primarily a research project that seeks to accumulate information, photographs, et cetera, about Paul Williams, principally his career.

Avery Trufelman:
A big part of this project was actually collecting information and hunting down which buildings were designed by Williams. The project, which is based at the University of Memphis, sent a photographic team to Los Angeles and Palm Springs and Las Vegas to start a catalog of Paul Williams buildings, but they were not always easy to find.

Leslie Luebbers:
Because he was a master at period-style, so he would have a Spanish-style house next to a Colonial-style house, next to a French Provincial-style house, or Gothic-style house. You say, “Okay.”

Roman Mars:
The project has found less than half of Williams’ work. Who knows how many of his buildings have been unknowingly torn down or renovated beyond recognition.

Avery Trufelman:
The Paul Williams Project is always hearing about more buildings to add to the catalog, mostly in Los Angeles, but not exclusively. Williams’ buildings are all over the country, and there are few abroad.

Leslie Luebbers:
We discover them all the time, and then we verify. We verify every house. So, we go to the city documents when pulling permits, all of that.

Avery Trufelman:
They are constantly checking and correcting themselves, but it’s really tough work because they have to go by accounts and records which were mostly burned. Then, Williams’ style is just all over the place.

Phil Freelon:
He just didn’t stick to one thing. He was always learning and developing, and, of course, he would listen to his clients and try and respond to what they needed, and what their desires were.

Avery Trufelman:
That’s architect Phil Freelon again. I asked him if Williams had to be responsive to his clients and flexible in his style in order to survive as a black architect.

Phil Freelon:
I think that Paul Williams’ desire to satisfy his clients is something that many architects share, and it’s not necessarily tied to race, although I will point out that he had to make certain adjustments in his approach to clients because of who he was and the time period in which he practiced.

Avery Trufelman:
By the way, Phil Freelon is also a big deal. He worked on the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, and, most recently-

Phil Freelon:
The National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall in Washington, D.C., where I was the architect of record.

Roman Mars:
Phil Freelon had already gotten into an architecture program before he had even heard of Paul Williams.

Phil Freelon:
I was maybe into my third or fourth year of school before I learned about Paul Williams, and that was really on my own. It wasn’t anything in the curriculum or in architectural history that mentioned him.

Roman Mars:
Let’s make this clear. There are a lot of black architects who get left out of the textbooks. Paul Williams was not the first black architect in America, but he was the first to be accepted as a member of the AIA, the American Institute of Architects.

Phil Freelon:
The American Institute of Architects is the leading professional organization in the U.S. for licensed architects and others in the profession.

Avery Trufelman:
Paul Williams joined the AIA in 1923.

Phil Freelon:
Every black architect I know, they know who Paul Williams is, and I haven’t met a white architect yet that knew who I was talking about if I were to mention that name. We need to change that.

Avery Trufelman:
This is why Phil Freelon nominated Paul Williams for the AIA’s highest individual award, the Gold Medal.

Roman Mars:
It’s basically the award that welcomes an architect into the canon of all-time greats. Previous winners included Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Thomas Jefferson. Now, Paul Williams will officially join their ranks, 37 years after his death.

Avery Trufelman:
This award means a lot to Freelon and other African-American architects in terms of general visibility.

Phil Freelon:
There are very few African-American architects working in this country, relatively speaking. Two percent of the licensed architects in this country are black, and one of the ways you would want to combat that is to raise the visibility and to make sure people know that this is a great profession and that young people see it as a possibility and as an option for them.

Roman Mars:
Ultimately, this award is about recognizing a master, a recognition that is long overdue. Paul Williams developed the eclectic style of the California home, and helped shape the look and feel of Los Angeles, just as much as Los Angeles shaped him – a man who could draw magnificent plans in any style, upside down, and better than most of his peers.

Credits

Production

Producer Avery Trufelman spoke with architect Phil Freelon; Karen Hudson, Paul Williams’ biographer and granddaughter; and Leslie Luebbers of the University of Memphis. Special thanks this week to Taylor Hamilton, Bonnie Boswell, and Bradford Grant as well as the Paul Williams Project.

  1. Thaddeus Heinz

    Thanks for the episode. I have never heard of Paul Williams. I think I might start drawing upside down. Would be awesome if you you did maybe an article (dosent need to be a podcast, but that would be cool) on Frank Furness the only architect to have ever earned the congressional medal of honor in the civil war. Hes one of my favorite Architects and his buildings are beautiful. Like Paul Williams much of his work was disposed of and demolished in the modernist building boom. Buildings designed by him today stand out on a league of there own. thanks

    1. 99pi

      Hi Cody – can you specify the kinds of links you mean? Generally we link either inline in the companion and/or in the credits section at the end.

    2. I was referring to the link in the beginning that you said we won’t remeber, and then the link at the end to vote for the podcast.

  2. Outstanding episode! Loved the pictures. I hope more materials come to light. The homes and buildings he designed in LA are so much a part of Southern California style, where I grew up.

  3. Fantastic episode. Truly in keeping with your “99percent invisible” philosophy. An architecture we take for granted, ubiquitous to our landscape yet possessing a deeper almost mysterious history. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Steven Gowin

    Thanks for this one. My son’s an architect, and I’ve been trying to get him into 99% for a few years now. This is the one that did the trick.

  5. Great episode! I listened while on the bus and when I got to work I asked my boss, an architect, if he knew of Paul Williams. Of course he did! He plucked a book about Mr. Williams from his bookshelf and I happily sat down and paged through it.
    Thanks for a great episode! I wouldn’t have known this story without 99% Invisible.

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