For the late L.A. architect Paul R. Williams, national honor overlaps with a bleak anniversary

At its annual convention this weekend in Orlando, Fla., the American Institute of Architects will give a posthumous Gold Medal, its highest honor, to the Los Angeles architect Paul Revere Williams. Williams, who died at 85 in 1980, is the first African American architect to win the award.

But it's a second, bleaker milestone this weekend that suggests the complexity of Williams' legacy and the range of obstacles that for many decades have kept his work from gaining wide recognition outside California. Sunday will mark the 25th anniversary of the day the Broadway Federal Savings & Loan at South Broadway and 45th Street went up in flames during the violent protests and rioting that followed the 1992 verdict in the Rodney King beating. The fire not only destroyed the bank but a large chunk of Williams' archive.

Many of the architect's papers, including a significant trove of drawings and letters, wound up being kept at the bank after his death because Williams had been on its board and friendly with its founder, H. Claude Hudson. (One of Williams' two daughters married a son of Hudson's, cementing the connection between the families; Karen E. Hudson, the most important chronicler of the architect’s work, is the granddaughter of both men.) Williams also redesigned the Broadway Federal building itself, in 1955. The 1992 fire, in other words, claimed one of his landmarks in addition to all those drawings.

That the Gold Medal ceremony and the anniversary of the bank blaze are overlapping on the calendar seems a sadly appropriate twist of fate for Williams, a hugely prolific architect and famously sharp dresser who charmed much of the Hollywood elite and worked across an eclectic range of historical styles (along with occasional forays into various strains of modernism).

Battling the sort of prejudice that not only shaped his roster of clients but was entrenched in the built landscape of the city itself — whites-only covenants meant that he was banned from living in many of the neighborhoods where his most impressive houses went up — Williams never had the luxury of thinking of architecture and race as separate. His career was one long negotiation between the two, an extended investigation of the ways that in 20th century Los Angeles they were thoroughly and often cruelly intertwined.

Finally, in one of the cruelest strokes of all, much of his archive was destroyed in a spasm of violence that was a direct expression — however many self-inflicted wounds it produced in L.A.'s black neighborhoods — of racial grievance.

The handsome period-revival houses he was best known for during his life — designed for clients including Frank Sinatra, Tyrone Power and Lucille Ball — were, to the extent that they showed a resolved or placid face to the world, masks. (Williams also designed many public buildings, including the Los Angeles County Courthouse on Bunker Hill, and was a prominent member of the design team for Los Angeles International Airport.) Those houses pretended that all was well, that Los Angeles was capable of bringing its diverse and mushrooming postwar population into something resembling harmony.

The 1992 uprising, like violence in Watts a generation earlier, was another reminder, if we needed one, that in Los Angeles there is always a range of more complicated emotions simmering below the surface of that apparent calm.

It would be worse than naive to say that the loss of Williams’ papers explains, on its own, why he has been overlooked by scholars and institutions like the AIA in the 25 years since. Race can never be detached from any discussion of his relative prominence in Los Angeles or in the profession.

But it certainly didn't help. The fire — and what it robbed of scholars considering his work — was one more obstacle, one more force nudging him away from widespread fame.

The AIA's efforts to pull him back into the spotlight are part of a larger recent campaign to reconsider the institution's own history and by extension that of American architecture.

Three years ago the Gold Medal went — also posthumously — to Julia Morgan, another prolific California architect whose work helped define the state’s 20th century character. She was the first woman to earn the honor.

Last year the AIA gave the Gold Medal, jointly, to Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, the husband-and-wife architects and theorists who have collaborated for more than four decades and together helped define a particularly clever and sophisticated brand of post-modernism. They were the first architects to win the award as a pair.

Their Gold Medal was widely seen as an effort to make up for — or remind the profession of — the fact that when Venturi won the 1991 Pritzker Prize, architecture’s most coveted international award, it went to him alone.

Race, gender, collaboration: These are the fraught subjects that the AIA is making an effort to confront. In doing so it is also admitting that for many decades it barely considered them.

I’m among those critics who wish the AIA could find living African American and female architects, and younger collaborative pairs, to honor with an award that continues to be an important one in the field. (There are plenty of accomplished ones to choose from in all three categories.) Before it can do that, the AIA seems to be arguing with these choices, it needs to spend some time grappling with the past, with the values and preferences that gave rise to a now-shaky canon.

As Williams’ example makes clear, that past is often far more complicated, full of more twists and crushing turns, than it looks at first glance.

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christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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