Harold Williams dies at 90; architect designed Compton City Hall

Early on, Harold Williams displayed artistic abilities, and his interest in architecture grew out of his childhood experiences inCincinnati. (Betty Williams)

When Compton hired architect Harold Williams to design a new City Hall in 1968, it was anything but a smooth sail.

Over the next several years, the project went through three mayors, eight city managers and 10 council members. Each regime offered a different vision for a structure to serve a community that, in just a few decades, had gone from being almost exclusively white to being predominantly African American.

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But Williams bird-dogged his clients because such jobs were rare for black architects like him and he was determined "to bring to that community quality architecture," he recalled in a 1993 oral history. "Because I feel that all people deserve quality architecture."

Completed in 1976, the two-story Late Modern building remains the architect's most enduring legacy.

Williams died June 21 of acute respiratory distress syndrome. He was 90.

Harold Louis Williams was born Aug. 4, 1924, in Flemingsburg, Ky., and grew up in Cincinnati, where his father worked as a railroad station baggage handler. Both of his parents were musicians — his father played violin and his mother, piano — and operated a drama club for children.

Early on, Williams displayed artistic abilities, and his interest in architecture grew out of childhood experiences. His father introduced him to a man designing a church. And the minister of the church the family attended, Mt. Zion Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, told him about Paul R. Williams, an African American architect (no relation) who was making a name for himself designing homes for celebrities in Los Angeles.

After graduating from high school in 1942, Williams was drafted into the U.S. Navy. He was denied the chance to become an aviator because he was black, said his wife, Betty. Instead, he served as a radio operator on a submarine chaser in the Pacific.

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In 1944, while on leave in Los Angeles, he met Paul Williams, and the two struck up a friendship that influenced the younger man's decision to practice architecture.

After graduating from Miami University in Ohio, where he was the architecture school's only black student, he became a draftsman at a Cleveland architecture firm. He also met Betty Smith, whom he married in 1954.

The next year, they moved to Los Angeles, where Williams went to work for his mentor at Paul R. Williams & Associates, serving as a draftsman on homes for Frank Sinatra and other prestigious clients. In 1958, he became the ninth African American architect to be licensed in California.

Eager to create buildings that served the public, Williams formed a firm with two other architects and began designing schools and housing developments. But his most significant commission was Compton City Hall and Civic Center, which included a high-rise county court building.

The project featured a soaring memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on which Williams collaborated with sculptor Gerald Gladstone. The circular work, composed of white panels rising up at varying angles, evokes a mountain, to reflect King's statement that he had "been to the mountaintop."

The project featured a soaring memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on which Williams collaborated with sculptor Gerald Gladstone. The circular work, composed of white panels rising up at varying angles, evokes a mountain, to reflect King's statement that he had "been to the mountaintop."

The project featured a soaring memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on which Williams collaborated with sculptor Gerald Gladstone. The circular work, composed of white panels rising up at varying angles, evokes a mountain, to reflect King's statement that he had "been to the mountaintop."

The project featured a soaring memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on which Williams collaborated with sculptor Gerald Gladstone. The circular work, composed of white panels rising up at varying angles, evokes a mountain, to reflect King's statement that he had "been to the mountaintop."

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The project featured a soaring memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on which Williams collaborated with sculptor Gerald Gladstone. The circular work, composed of white panels rising up at varying angles, evokes a mountain, to reflect King's statement that he had "been to the mountaintop."

The project featured a soaring memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on which Williams collaborated with sculptor Gerald Gladstone. The circular work, composed of white panels rising up at varying angles, evokes a mountain, to reflect King's statement that he had "been to the mountaintop."

The project featured a soaring memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on which Williams collaborated with sculptor Gerald Gladstone. The circular work, composed of white panels rising up at varying angles, evokes a mountain, to reflect King's statement that he had "been to the mountaintop."

The project featured a soaring memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on which Williams collaborated with sculptor Gerald Gladstone. The circular work, composed of white panels rising up at varying angles, evokes a mountain, to reflect King's statement that he had "been to the mountaintop."

The project featured a soaring memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on which Williams collaborated with sculptor Gerald Gladstone. The circular work, composed of white panels rising up at varying angles, evokes a mountain, to reflect King's statement that he had "been to the mountaintop."

The project featured a soaring memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on which Williams collaborated with sculptor Gerald Gladstone. The circular work, composed of white panels rising up at varying angles, evokes a mountain, to reflect King's statement that he had "been to the mountaintop."

The project featured a soaring memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on which Williams collaborated with sculptor Gerald Gladstone. The circular work, composed of white panels rising up at varying angles, evokes a mountain, to reflect King's statement that he had "been to the mountaintop."

The project featured a soaring memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on which Williams collaborated with sculptor Gerald Gladstone. The circular work, composed of white panels rising up at varying angles, evokes a mountain, to reflect King's statement that he had "been to the mountaintop."

The project featured a soaring memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on which Williams collaborated with sculptor Gerald Gladstone. The circular work, composed of white panels rising up at varying angles, evokes a mountain, to reflect King's statement that he had "been to the mountaintop."

The project featured a soaring memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on which Williams collaborated with sculptor Gerald Gladstone. The circular work, composed of white panels rising up at varying angles, evokes a mountain, to reflect King's statement that he had "been to the mountaintop."

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The project featured a soaring memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on which Williams collaborated with sculptor Gerald Gladstone. The circular work, composed of white panels rising up at varying angles, evokes a mountain, to reflect King's statement that he had "been to the mountaintop."

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