In the early 1900’s there were 3,100 African Americans listed in the Los Angeles census out of 102,000 people. Paul R. Williams was one of them.
Paul R. Williams (February 18, 1894-1973 – January 23, 1980) was born in Los Angeles to parents from Memphis. After their sudden deaths two years apart when he was four years old, Williams was placed into a foster home.
Williams attended Polytechnic High School where a teacher tried to discourage him from pursuing a career in architecture because, “it would be difficult for him to attract clients from the majority white community and the smaller Black community would not provide him enough work.”
Williams was not deterred from these statements, however, and he became certified as a building contractor in 1915, and licensed as an architect by the State of California in 1921, despite living in an era of racial prejudice.
He studied at the Los Angeles branch of the New York Beaux-Arts Institute of Design Atelier. He attended the University of Southern California and designed several residential buildings while still a student. In June 1917, at the First AME Church in Los Angeles he married Della Mae Givens and they had three children.
Williams worked for Los Angeles architect John C. Austin from 1921-1924 where he became chief draftsman before he established his own office.
“Highly astute, Williams masterfully navigated the business and social circles of the day. He even learned to draw upside down in order to sketch for clients from across the table—for the benefit of any white clients who might have been uneasy sitting next to an African American,” (LA Conservancy).
Williams was well respected in his community and designed thousands of buildings for Hollywood stars and small family home structures over a five decade period. His list of celebrity clientele included Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
Some of William’s most notable work include being on the design team for the LAX airport as well as:
- The Los Angeles County Courthouse
- First AME Church of Los Angeles
- Westwood Medical Center
He designed many public and private buildings and served on several state and federal commissions as well as being active in political and social organizations. One thing Williams cared about was the future of young African-Americans, especially in the greater Los Angeles area. He was the first African American elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1957.