"If I allow the fact that I am a Negro to checkmate my will to do, now, I will inevitably form the habit of being defeated".
July 2, 2006 9:25 AM   Subscribe

The Jackie Robinson of architecture. An orphaned African American boy from downtown Los Angeles, Paul Revere Williams wanted to be an architect, and when he mentioned his career goal the high school guidance counselor ”stared at me with as much astonishment as he would have had I proposed a rocket flight to Mars... Whoever heard of a Negro being an architect?”. Therefore, Williams learned to read and draw upside down -- he knew that white clients would not sit next to him -- graduated from USC and in 1924 became the first certified African American architect west of the Mississippi. In a 50-year long extraordinary career, he designed landmarks like the Theme restaurant at Los Angeles International Airport (with Welton Becket), the LA County Courthouse, the Hollywood YMCA, Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, restored the Beverly Hills Hotel. Some of his most interesting buildings, like the La Concha Motel in Las Vegas have either been razed to the ground or, like the "Batman house", aka 160 S San Rafael mansion in Pasadena, have been destroyed by fire. Now, Williams' historic Morris Landau House has been cut into 21 separate pieces and sits in a Santa Clarita storage yard, rotting away. More inside.
posted by matteo (25 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
from the main link:
As Williams’ health started to fail, the family would take long drives through the city. Every so often the architect would look out the window at one of his creations and smile. “He talked very little about his work when he was working,” Hudson says. “But when he was very ill, we’d go for drives and he’d say, ‘That’s a fine piece of work.’”
posted by matteo at 9:26 AM on July 2, 2006

nice post, matteo.
You would think that after 5 years of architecture school, I'd have heard of this guy.
But I'm not surprised - I saw racism and the old-boy-network type of favoritism/exclusion when I was doing my apprenticeship in the 90s.
I still love architecture, just happy to be out of the profession.
posted by bashos_frog at 9:57 AM on July 2, 2006

Excellent post.
posted by blendor at 10:49 AM on July 2, 2006

[This is good]

Wow. Great post. I have just spent a happy half an hour wading through the various links. I want to find out more about Mrs Clarkson, who clearly played a pivotal role in launching him onto this path.
posted by greycap at 11:02 AM on July 2, 2006

Fascinating post. It's interesting that the black members of the AIA hasn't exceeded ~5% but as bashos_frog notes above perhaps it isn't that surprising to anyone familiar with the politics of the architecture business.

Great links, and that Pasadena home sure is something else. Too bad those magnificent buildings always seem to encounter some disaster that destroys them.
posted by nonmerci at 11:58 AM on July 2, 2006

Too bad those magnificent buildings always seem to encounter some disaster that destroys them.
The pace of tearing down homes in historic neighborhoods across the country is escalating to "an orgy of irrational destruction," warned the head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who called on communities to take action against replacing small old houses with McMansions.
posted by matteo at 12:21 PM on July 2, 2006

Thank you for this Matteo - I too followed the links, loved the tour it took me on... wonderful post for my Holiday..
posted by Gal 220 at 1:09 PM on July 2, 2006

I love the Theme Restuarant at LAX, the division of space is done very nicely.
posted by msjen at 2:11 PM on July 2, 2006

Bravo, matteo!

Paul Williams designed the home in-laws now live in--built in the 1940's in the southern San Fernando Valley--and from the moment I saw their house, I loved it and my sister-in-law and I have a half-joking argument that we will fight each other for it, Thunderdome-style, some day. (I will prevail because I am much taller than she and can fight dirty.)

Once you get the gist of what one of Williams' residential creations look like, suddenly you drive around LA and Beverly Hills and see them everywhere! His houses were very traditional and well-constructed, so they look timeless. Signature touches I associate with his residential design include thin squared iron railings on balconies and bannisters, thin squared white columns to hold up those second story balconies or overhangs, narrow wooden shutters, multi-pane windows made up of little squares of glass, wide but not sprawling foundations (even on his two story houses), and a lot of brickwork, much more than is commonly used in Los Angeles today probably because of earthquake safety building codes. They are often partway between an East Coast Colonial or Georgian (shutters, brickwork) and a West Coast ranch house (one story, pool). Above all, Williams houses are supremely tasteful, which is so rare in modern LA, which overflows with icy super-modern boxy houses, outsized McMansions, and tacky Persian Palaces. In contrast, Williams homes are just...lovely.

The link you provided to Amazon is a wonderful coffee table book that his granddaughter wrote about her grandfather's life and creative process. Not only are there drool-worthy photos of his work, but there are quotations from his writings and anecdotes about his life mixed in. His pre-desegregation writings struck me, with their defensive pride and self-consiousness:
"Of course, I know that I cannot be accepted socially by the whites. I have no desire to be, for I firmly believe that the Negro, in order to break down the racial barriers which affect his business success, should be ever careful in preserving the social barriers that set him apart. I have defined those social barriers for my own guidance and made it a rule never to attend social gatherings where white women are to be present.

It is true, consequently, that all of my social life is spent with my own people--but I am NOT unhappy with them...Among our friends are doctors, lawyers, druggists, artsists, teachers, enginers. Almost all of them are college graduates, several of whom wear Phi Beta Kappa keys, won in the fairest of intellectual competition. A few are accomplished musicians, not "Kings of Jazz," but serious students of Bach and Mozart, Chopin and Tchaikovsky. We read the new books, and we have studied the old..."
And also, not unrelated to his struggles with racism, there were anecdotes about his shrewd business sense:
"'Just shopping around a bit...really not intending to build right now...maybe next year...thinking of spending about $8,000...' they would explain in voluble confusion...The average figure quoted by such 'shoppers' was low, for clients able to build expensive mansions were not yet patronizing my office. But I knew that the proposed cost, in each case, must seem to the owner a fortune. And I used that knowledge as the springboard for a deliberate trick designed to startle my visitor into regarding me as an individual...

"I am sorry," I would say, "but I have been forced to make it a rule never to do houses costing less than $10,000--but won't you sit down for a moment. Perhaps I may be able to give you a few ideas..."

Theatrical tactics? Of course--but I had to win a hearing, a chance to present my wares and prove my ability. And I knew that nothing so impresses the average American as the illusion of financial success, especially if that success is encountered in an unexpected quarter. The trick worked. Frequently it gave me needed clients."
Keep in mind that he was deigning mansions in places like Bel Air in the 1930's-1950's for the likes of Jay Paley, E.L. Cord, Tevis Morrow, Lucy and Desi Arnaz, Frank Sinatra--broadcast stars, executives, oil barons--and yet each night he would go home to his cute but far more modest home in an unrestricted part of Los Angeles, where African-Americans were allowed to live. He designed the Palm Springs tennis club and did alterations and additions to the Ambassador Hotel and the Beverly Hills Hotel (including, famously, its Polo Lounge). But he could never be a guest or a member at those places.

As a penultimate, and sad, note, his granddaughter's book mentions that as just she was starting to collect material for her book, the 1992 riots broke out. Not only did several of Williams' buildings get torched and destroyed, but one of them was the Broadway Federal Savings and Loan he had designed and whose safe deposit box held many of his business' architectural papers and correspondence. Thus, there may never be a complete record of his work.

But as a final, and happier, note, a lot of his houses have been used as the backdrop for movie sets, so they turn up in the oddest of places; recently, my husband and I were watching "Roller Boogie" and he noticed that it used exterior shots of a Paul Williams house.
posted by Asparagirl at 2:32 PM on July 2, 2006 [4 favorites]

Drawing upside down. Wow.
posted by dabitch at 3:05 PM on July 2, 2006

Fascinating man. On top of everything he did (thouse are some cool bldgs), it's also just rare that architects can leave their work at the office and relax with their families. Regarding this comment though: “Here was this man designing mansions in places he couldn’t dream of living” - I'd say that's a situation endemic to most architects regardless of their race. It's frustrating as hell.
posted by DenOfSizer at 4:21 PM on July 2, 2006

This IS fascinating. I find the burning of the old "Batman house" to be really eerie considering the plot developments in Batman Begins. I haven't finished all of the links, but I wonder if he may have done the house used in Harold & Maude?
posted by BoringPostcards at 4:51 PM on July 2, 2006

The Batman House is OK.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 5:59 PM on July 2, 2006

I can read and write upside down, dabitch, and I think drawing upside down would just be a matter of practice. It looks impressive as hell to those who can't, though.

The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago had an exhibit on black architects earlier this year, with oodles of photographs and reference models. (It was ever-so-slightly PC in that it bowed to Afrocentric claims of Egyptian architecture as "African", which I consider a stretch.)

But the great thing about the exhibit was realizing that -- obviously -- buildings have no skin color. Most of the buildings had no obvious ethnicity to them, and many of them were just as interesting and innovative as anything of their day. Certainly, there have always been African-American institutions -- black colleges, and of necessity, black hospitals -- and wealthy blacks such as the doctors of Chicago's "Pill Hill", who could afford architects and chose fellow blacks.
posted by dhartung at 7:43 PM on July 2, 2006

If you can draw at all, you can do it upside down, sideways, backwards, etc. Orientation isn't really an issue.
posted by signal at 8:55 PM on July 2, 2006

Best of Metafilter.
posted by Mr. Six at 8:58 PM on July 2, 2006

Awesome post, matteo. Being so close to Santa Clarita, I'm curious to see if I can get in and see that fantastic building.
posted by chimaera at 9:58 PM on July 2, 2006

T3D 5t3v3n5 r0x0rz!
posted by psmealey at 6:49 AM on July 3, 2006

oops... wrong thread. Sorry y'all.
posted by psmealey at 6:49 AM on July 3, 2006

Senator Stevens, is that you? I think your internet is in the other thread.
posted by bashos_frog at 8:40 AM on July 3, 2006

the Senator's Internet tube is leaking
posted by matteo at 9:08 AM on July 3, 2006

Nice post matteo
posted by Smedleyman at 4:06 PM on July 3, 2006

Thanks, matteo.
posted by shoepal at 5:34 PM on July 3, 2006

Only one question, who's Jackie Robinson?

Nice post though.
posted by wilful at 7:36 PM on July 3, 2006

aye signal, that be very true, it was more his thinking of why he had to do it that way. Or that he had to think that way... or I mean. oh never mind I can't phrase this properly.
posted by dabitch at 2:17 PM on July 8, 2006

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