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Paul R. Williams Built Homes for the Stars But Couldn’t Stay as Their Guest

Written by Cindy Marie Jenkins on Friday, February 2nd, 2018 at 10:36am.

The origins of Black History Month, beginning back in the 1920s when Carter G. Woodson searched for a day to allow people to celebrate the achievements of their community in times when basic civil rights like voting were not within their grasp. It was extended to a week and in 1976 turned into a month of honoring the past, present and future accomplishments within relentless social and political struggle. It’s said that the month of February was a good fit because Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were both born in this month. 

Although many use February as a time to brush up on their African American history or attend events that are culturally significant, we felt it is a good time to bring you some fast facts about Paul R. Williams, a prominent African American in architectural history who lived from 1894-1980. 

  • Williams accomplished many firsts: From going solo as the first African American student in his elementary school to working his way up to becoming the first African American member and Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), his achievements are outstanding for the time.
  • Much land that he designed and built had binding segregation covenants, so Williams would not be able to live in these homes if desired. “The land deed said a black person could not even spend the night,” according to his granddaughter Karen E. Hudson.
  • He also designed now legendary homes for celebrities such as the actor Bert Lahr, comedians Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, dancer Bill (Bojangles) Robinson and the iconic entertainer Frank Sinatra.
  • His homes showed up on TV as well. Williams built a 17-room mansion in Pasadena California that turned the tide of TV history, all thanks to its lily pond. The infamous Colby mansion in Dynasty was where Krystle Carrington and Alexis Colby had their catfight to end all catfights -- or rather, to open the door for trashy fun punches between women on the small screen.
  • Williams had to learn how to draw upside down in order to avoid an uncomfortable moment if someone who contracted him was not willing to sit next to him. 
  • Riding along Southern California’s real estate boom of the 1920s, Williams was able to keep steady business by building new homeowners smaller, affordable homes while keeping projects in Flintridge, Windsor Square and Hancock Park for larger and more opulent projects.
  • Some landmarks he designed include the following: MCA, Saks Fifth Avenue, Palm Springs Tennis Club and Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building. 

We leave you with Williams’ own words from a 1937 essay in American Magazine: 

"Virtually everything pertaining to my professional life during those early years was influenced by my need to offset race prejudice, by my effort to force white people to consider me as an individual rather than a member of a race," he wrote. "I encountered irreconcilables who simply refused to give me a hearing, but on the whole, I have been treated with amazing fairness."

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