LOS ANGELES (AP) – Before there was Frank Gehry, there was Paul Revere Williams, who was the face of Los Angeles for most of the 20th century, a time when he also became known as arguably the greatest black architect of his time .
Now, the archives of Williams, which contain tens of thousands of drawings, blueprints, vintage photos, and other documents that have ever been lost, have been taken over by the University of Southern California School of Architecture and the Getty Research Institute.
Paul Williams was a pioneering architect whose long career helped shape Los Angeles and Southern California. His archive essentially tells the story of how modern Southland was built, ”said Mary Miller, director of the Getty Research Institute. “Its importance as an aesthetic and educational tool cannot be overemphasized.”
The archives contain approximately 35,000 plans, 10,000 original drawings, blueprints, hand-colored renderings, photos and other material. They are cared for by his granddaughter Karen Elyse Hudson, who has published a lot about his work.
“The collaboration of two such esteemed institutions, the University of Southern California and the Getty Research Institute to preserve and advance his legacy, would make our grandfather extremely proud,” said Hudson.
Williams started his career in the 1920s, a time when there were few opportunities for black architects, and indeed, segregation greatly influenced the way he often did his work.
He learned to draw upside down so that he could sketch across a table for white customers who might be sitting next to him uncomfortably. On construction sites, he often kept his hands clasped behind his back as he watched his work be made, to avoid anyone from being uncomfortable shaking his hand.
He became known, Hudson said, as the ‘architect of the stars’, designing dazzling homes for Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, among others.
Creating unique homes for the rich and famous represented only a small part of his work.
His archives also document his early residential assignments from a 1920s house tree to mid-century historic buildings. The Los Angeles County Courthouse, Los Angeles International Airport, and the First African Methodist Church were among the projects he led or worked on.
He was also chief architect for the Pueblo del Rio neighborhood of South Los Angeles, built in 1940 to house workers of the African-American defense industry.
While working primarily in Southern California, Williams was also the lead architect for the United Nations building in Paris and Langston Terrace in Washington, DC, the country’s first federally sponsored public housing.
He was the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects, the first African American Fellow and the first African American recipient of the Institute’s gold medal, the highest honor.
His records were once believed to have been lost when a bank building in South Los Angeles where they were said to have been set on fire during the 1992 riots following the acquittal of four white police officers for beating black motorist Rodney King. While some of Williams’s things were stored there, most of his papers were housed elsewhere.
Born in Los Angeles in 1894, Williams was orphaned after the death of his father at the age of 2 and his mother at the age of 4. He died in 1980 at the age of 85.
Despite those early hardships, he would be hailed as one of the University of Southern California’s most distinguished alumni. Milton SF Curry, Dean of the University’s School of Architecture, said USC was honored to play a role in the archives’ acquisition.
The archives will become a central part of the USC Center for Architecture + City Design and the African American Art History Initiative at Getty. They will eventually be made available to scientists and others through a digitization project that will take several years to complete.
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