Legacy of Black architect Paul Williams is not new but it’s worthy of celebration all the same


Williams was the first Black member invited in by the American Institute of Architects, KABC reported in February. He was also the first Black member to earn the institute’s most esteemed honor, the Gold Medal, which Williams received in 2017. The Getty Research Institute and the USC School of Architecture acquired an archive of almost 60 years of his work. “His signature is on 3,000 buildings in Los Angeles and is literally on the Beverly Hills hotel: the sign is in his own handwriting,” KABC posted in a subheadline for its story on Williams.

Photographer Janna Ireland featured Williams’ work in her book, Regarding Paul R. Williams: A Photographer’s View. “When you enter one of his spaces, it seems that nothing is accidental,” she told KABC. “Everything is the way it is supposed to be, everything is done according to a plan.”

Los Angeles Times columnist Carolina Miranda wrote in January that “the renewed attention to Williams couldn’t come at a more critical time.” She wrote: “At a moment in which violent white supremacy is ascendant, Williams’ buildings are a reminder that Black people not only helped build U.S. cities — they also designed them.” 

Miranda wrote of how Williams’ death on Jan. 23, 1980 at the age of 85 was treated as a footnote by local media. “Buildings he designed were torn down; others, remodeled beyond recognition,” Miranda wrote. “The work of an architect whose firm was responsible for thousands of structures in Southern California, who was name-checked in real estate ads as ‘world-famous,’ who shaped L.A. through civic roles including a seat on the City Planning Commission — a position he assumed in 1921 at the tender age of 27 — was in danger of fading away.”

LeRonn Brooks, head curator for the African American Art History Initiative at the Getty Research Institute, told Miranda that in this one man’s life lay “all the contradictions and the struggles of American history.”

“You can trace the history of democracy through the story of Paul Williams,” Brooks said. Miranda described it in these terms:

“To consider Williams’ work is to consider the lives of a postslavery generation shaped by segregation, the civil rights movement and various civil uprisings. It is also to consider the peculiar position of Los Angeles, where the codes that governed race were just loose enough to let a Black architect triumph.”

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