Architect's Legacy Lives On in Lafayette Square : Black Man's Work Is Testament to His Talent and Theatrics

In the years following World War I, clients often entered the new office of Los Angeles architect Paul Williams without realizing that he was black.

After meeting Williams they would freeze and attempt to withdraw graciously. Williams was trying to breach an almost totally white profession, however, and he was ready with several tricks.

If the embarrassed client mentioned that he wanted to build a home for $8,000, for example, Williams would say, "I am sorry, but I have been forced to make it a rule never to do houses costing less than $10,000--but won't you sit down for a moment. Perhaps I may be able to give you a few ideas."

With the prospective client seated across the desk from him, he would rapidly begin to sketch the living room of the house. He had spent hours learning to draw upside down and, invariably, the client's interest would be excited by the trick.

"But it was more than a trick," Williams wrote, "for, as the room developed before his eyes, I would ask for suggestions and for approval of my own ideas. He became a full partner in the birth of that room as I filled in the details of the drawing."

Project Would Proceed After this type of presentation, the prospective client and Williams often decided to go ahead with a project.

"Theatrical tactics? Of course," Williams wrote in a 1937 article in American Magazine, "but I had to win a hearing, a chance to present my wares and prove my ability. And I knew that nothing so impresses the average American as the illusion of financial success, especially if that success is encountered in an unexpected quarter."

Using ploys such as these, Williams went on to an international career in which he designed homes for Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Lon Chaney Sr. and other stars, as well as the Saks Fifth Avenue store in Beverly Hills, the Palm Springs Tennis Club and commercial projects in Europe and South America. He became the first black member of the American Institute of Architects.

He also designed houses where he lived--a largely black upper-middle-class neighborhood called Lafayette Square, which is west of Crenshaw Boulevard between Venice and Washington boulevards.

Two of Williams' creations will be among six Lafayette Square houses shown when the Los Angeles Conservancy conducts a walking tour of the community from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today.

The Conservancy, which attempts to preserve Los Angeles' heritage, organized the tour to coincide with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday Tuesday. It will sell $6 tickets at the site.

Visitors will not see interiors of homes formerly lived in by W. C. Fields, Fatty Arbuckle, Norton Simon, George Pepperdine or former heavyweight champion Joe Louis.

But they will see wide, palm-lined streets dominated by well-manicured lawns and large two-story residences of varying styles. The house of former Dodgers catcher John Roseboro will be open, and several other prominent residents may be around.

They include Walt Hazzard, the UCLA basketball coach; Paul (Tank) Younger, the ex-Los Angeles Rams running back; Los Angeles Urban League President John Mack; KTLA anchor Larry McCormick; Superior Court Judge James Reese, and Vaino Spencer, presiding justice of the 2nd Appellate District of the state Court of Appeals.

These residents live on land that was devoted to barley fields and pastures until George L. Crenshaw, a Caucasian, built the first home in the neighborhood in 1912.

Crenshaw, who gave his name to Crenshaw Boulevard, designed a community of four north-south streets intersected by an east-west thoroughfare with a wide, grassy divider.

Following that plan, builders erected most of the area's 256 homes in the decade following World War I. Residents say many deeds contained restrictive racial covenants and that blacks did not move in until after World War II.

Residents keep their homes for a long time because the large lawns and tree-lined streets, not visible from the surrounding boulevards, provide an enclave minutes away from downtown Los Angeles and other major areas.

"It reminds me of St. Louis where I grew up," said Ellen Farwell, a deputy sheriff who bought her home four years ago. "The trees remind me of the lushness in the summertime and how happy we were when the grass was on the ground. . . . Anybody who walked or rode through here one time would be hooked."

This tranquility and craftsmanship are protected by an active homeowners association. The group has helped keep new liquor stores out of the neighborhood, created a watch system to tell police when strange cars are in the area and established safe houses for children who can't find their parents.

"People have the attitude of really trying to keep this place special," Farwell said. "There's a sense of true community, like a small town."

"I know I don't ever want to move," said Jaleesa Hazzard, who attends her husband's UCLA home games with their children Jalal, 14; Khalil, 10, and Rasheed, 8. Another son, Yakub, 20, is a junior at Stanford.

"I don't think I could find what I have here. I know I couldn't find it for what I pay here."

The houses are so large that they can accommodate almost any taste or need. An original LeRoy Neiman portrait of a resident hangs in one living room. Elevators and hand-carved railings and cornices have been installed in many others. Paul Williams' own home, designed in 1950, contains a lanai looking out on a large garden.

Williams, who died in 1980, designed the home after extensive experience with large residences, but he won his first assignment for a house costing more than $100,000--from auto maker E.L. Cord--through another ploy.

Williams received a telephone call from Cord saying that he had acquired 10 acres in Beverly Hills and wanted Williams to view the site immediately.

"On the strength of our telephone conversation," Williams wrote, "I judged that he worshipped prompt action.

"After we had gone over the building site, he warned me that he had already discussed plans with a number of other architects and demanded to know how soon I could submit preliminary drawings.

" 'By 4 o'clock tomorrow afternoon,' I answered.

" 'Why, that's impossible!' he cried. 'Every other architect has asked for two or three weeks!' He regarded me shrewdly for a moment. 'Go ahead,' he said.

"I delivered those preliminary plans by the scheduled hour--but I did not tell him that I had worked for 22 hours, without sleeping or eating."

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