Paul Williams was a pioneering architect who achieved several historical firsts en route to his way to becoming home designer to the stars. Along with designing homes for Southern California’s elite, Williams also designed the St. Jude Children’s Hospital and Los Angeles’ Saks Fifth Avenue, among other top designs.
Williams was born February 1, 1894, in Los Angeles. Williams and his brother were orphaned as children and raised in different homes. Williams’ foster mother advocated education, inspiring his intellectual pursuits. While Los Angeles was a melting pot of culture, being Black in America still presented challenges. Williams knew he wanted to be an architect, despite discouragement from one of his teachers.
Williams studied at several art and design institutions across Los Angeles, including the University of Southern California even designing buildings while he attended the school. In 1921, he became a licensed architect in California, reportedly the first Black architect west of the Mississippi.
This period of Williams’ life enhanced his visibility and made him an in-demand designer. After founding his own firm and winning architectural competitions, Williams made history by becoming the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects in 1923.
Among Williams’ notable works are the homes of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Frank Sinatra, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Cary Grant, and St Jude founder and actor Danny Thomas. Iconic buildings such as the Beverly Hills Hotel, L.A.’s First A.M.E. Church, and the Palm Springs Tennis Club are among the thousands of projects Williams worked on in his five-decade career.
After retiring in 1973, Williams passed in 1980. He was posthumously awarded the 2017 AIA Gold Medal last December, the first African-American to receive the honor.
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