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.

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The Los Angeles County Administration building - shows elements like the square windows recur in the Saks Fifth Avenue building. Not sure whose idea the bust of Lincoln was but Lincoln is also worked into the 28th Street YMCA.

The Los Angeles County Administration building - shows elements like the square windows recur in the Saks Fifth Avenue building. Not sure whose idea the bust of Lincoln was but Lincoln is also worked into the 28th Street YMCA.

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.

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The Los Angeles Superior Court - check out how much blank space surrounds the relief on the front of the building.

The Los Angeles Superior Court - check out how much blank space surrounds the relief on the front of the building.

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.”

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The Founders Church of Religious Science - the use of a circular wall of ornamental brick is very similar to that used at the LAX theme building.

The Founders Church of Religious Science - the use of a circular wall of ornamental brick is very similar to that used at the LAX theme building.

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.

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Saks fifth avenue in Beverly Hills - with rounded corners and gold, black and silver trim this building is the epitome of class.

Saks fifth avenue in Beverly Hills - with rounded corners and gold, black and silver trim this building is the epitome of class.

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.

One of Williams' earlier designs in a traditional design and which will play host to the Pasadena House of Design event this April. Credit: Pasadena Showcase House for the Arts.

One of Williams' earlier designs in a traditional design and which will play host to the Pasadena House of Design event this April. Credit: Pasadena Showcase House for the Arts.

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.

The Golden State Mutual Life Insurance company. Credit: Daniel Paul.

The Golden State Mutual Life Insurance company. Credit: Daniel Paul.

 

Inside of the building are murals that portray African American history in Southern California.

Inside of the now closed Golden State Mutual building are some amazing murals which are rarely seen especially now that the building is has been closed for a while. Credit: used Courtesy Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co.

Inside of the now closed Golden State Mutual building are some amazing murals which are rarely seen especially now that the building is has been closed for a while. Credit: used Courtesy Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co.

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.
 http://www.laconservancy.org/issues/issues_villabasque.php4

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.

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  • http://www.nubianarchitects.com NuAr

    Why would Timme make a statement like that and why would someone ask a european to comment on the works of an Nubian? Why not find one of the principals of an Nubian owned firm and ask them their thoughts on Paul Williams' Legacy. Timmes' statement was racist in a passive manner stating that Mr. Williams fortitude would not have upheld in a different social climate, Timmes' DID NOT WANT Mr. Williams to achieve anywhere else so that is why he made SoCal seem as if it was a haven which we are sure it wasn't given most "americans" migrated from the east TO THE west. Wrong person to comment on such a great Nubian King and Architect. Totally Disrespectful to our ancestors. KARMA IS REAL

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