It doesn’t have to be Black History Month to appreciate Black History in Los Angeles, especially when it involves one of LA’s great architects, Paul Williams, writes Sunil Rampersad.
I asked my much better-informed friends for a list of recommendations, and then trekked across town on the bus. Unfortunately I did not get to all I would have liked, but it was a great introduction to an amazing architect and personality.
I like the lack of excessive ornamentation, and the square windows also found also on Saks Fifth Avenue.
After seeing the work, I wanted to know more about the man who created these iconic Los Angeles buildings. Researching his life and work, it became apparent to me that here was a man who knew what he wanted to do, and then did what he had to do make it happen. If he had to take an unpaid job because it was good for his career, even though he desperately needed the money, then that’s what he did. If he had to hold his hands behind his back so an uncomfortable white client would not have to touch him, again, that’s what he would do.
He believed that his personal strength and talent would win the day. Yes, there were moments of doubt and crisis. But he saw that being bitter about the racism he was faced with would in the end only do him more harm than good. In fact he has remarkably good things to say about his white clients and how he was treated by them, saying, “.. on the whole I have been treated with an amazing fairness.”
A native son, and one of Los Angeles’ most important architects, his buildings are everywhere. Not surprising when we remember that he designed approximately 3,000 projects, most of them right here in LA.
His hand can be seen in many of the iconic buildings of the area: The the 28th Street YMCA, the Ambassador hotel (unfortunately now gone), the Beverly Hills hotel, the Beverly Wiltshire hotel, LAX theme building, the Los Angeles County Courthouse, Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills and the Shrine Auditorium.
Though he designed restaurants, post offices and public buildings, private residences accounted for most of his work. The undoubted “architect to the stars,” he designed the houses of Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Lon Chaney and more. The public will have a rare chance to see the inside of one of these homes when in April 2011 the Pasadena Showcase House for the Arts (PSHA), present their annual fundraiser, where high-end designers each decorate one room at a Paul R. Williams designed residence.
Some doubt whether Williams would have been as prolific and ultimately influential as he was had he been in any other city. Robert Timme, dean of the USC School of Architecture says, “California represented an acceptance of both him, as an African-American and his work” and goes on to say, “Maybe Southern California was the only place he could have achieved all this.”
A few days ago I was at the monthly Modern Committee meeting, and one of the buildings on the agenda happened to be Williams’ Golden State Mutual building. A nomination had just been submitted to give it Los Angeles Historic Monument status. Even though I did not shoot these on one of my bus rides (and they’re used with the kind permission of Daniel Paul) I thought my readers would enjoy them. So here they are.
Inside of the building are murals that portray African American history in Southern California.
I did hear some alarming news at that Modcom meeting. They showed pictures of pieces of La Villa Basque out on the sidewalk and reports are that the banquet halls are gone and now owners have turned their hammers and saws to the rest of the place. Even though the Conservancy has jumped on it there’s little they can do since this building is in Vernon not LA.
Sadly, much of the Williams’ archives was lost when in the 1992 riots the Broadway Federal building which they were in burned. Luckily, we still have these buildings to enjoy. As for his impact on the profession, of the 214,000 architects in the U.S. still only a little over three percent are African American.