A Legacy Restored
Karen Hudson remembers the thrill of thinking that one of her grandpas “might be a little bit famous.”
It was 1960, and she was 10. Her father’s father, H. Claude Hudson, was a civil rights activist whose name was in the local news. “He was very visible in our [African American] community--everyone seemed to know who he was.”
But what about her mother’s father, grandpa Paul R. Williams?
“He was off building things in places we never saw. No one talked much about what he did. We loved him because he was so gentle and kind, never raised his voice--and he always gave us silver dollars when we got A’s.”
It was only after she grew up that Karen Hudson realized her “less famous” grandpa--Williams--was one of the premier architects of Los Angeles.
He was the man who designed hundreds of the Southland’s most impressive buildings--elegant homes in Hancock Park, Pasadena, Toluca Lake, Beverly Hills, Bel-Air and Holmby Hills. He was the architect who gave the Beverly Hills Hotel its distinctive look, who designed the Litton Industries building and Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, the theme restaurant at Los Angeles International Airport, the Second Baptist Church of Los Angeles, the downtown L.A. County Courthouse--3,000 buildings in all, public and residential. He was responsible for the landmark looks of neighborhoods still familiar today--such as the great Tudor homes of Hancock Park--buildings that give so many L.A. areas their distinctive flavor.
Yet as Hudson was growing up, few people seemed to know who he was.
That’s because Williams was a black architect in an era when discrimination was blatant and unrestrained. In the early years of his career, which began in the 1920s, neither he nor his wife, Della--nor his two daughters as they grew up--were welcome in many of the buildings he so brilliantly designed.
By the time his grandchildren came along in the 1950s, things were better--but perhaps not that much. For whatever reason, Hudson says she can’t remember her Grandpa Paul ever taking the family on trips to view his architectural creations.
In 1980, the year he died, Hudson was 29. She says she remembers “sitting at his funeral, hearing eulogies about all his great work and realizing how much of it I never knew and had never seen. I never knew how many people’s lives he had touched with his immense talent.”
She decided to take time out from her marketing business to research her grandfather’s work. This turned out to be more difficult than she had expected--"a gargantuan and often overwhelming search.”
She could find little in libraries about him. There was no complete list of buildings he had designed. Except for her widowed grandmother’s cartons of clippings, dating to 1914, Hudson had little to go on. A small newspaper article asking for information on this “forgotten” architect, she says, produced hundreds of inspiring replies.
Hudson learned that her grandfather was building mansions in Flintridge at a time when restrictive covenants prohibited African Americans from spending a night there.
He designed exteriors and interiors of the Beverly Hills Hotel--including the coffee shop and the Polo Lounge--at a time when African Americans were not welcome to dine in either of those places.
She met with a former employee of Williams who recalled having lunch at the hotel while work was in progress. He saw his boss, Williams, enter the dining room and motioned for Williams to join him. Williams ignored the man’s beckoning gesture. The employee was mortified, he later told Hudson. “I was sure I was in trouble; the boss didn’t like me enough to eat with me. I had no idea he ignored me because he knew that if he sat down, he wouldn’t be served.”
The more Hudson learned about her grandfather, the more eager she was to write a book about his dignity, tenacity and courage. Not to mention his talent and accomplishments.
He had designed homes for “ordinary” citizens, industrial magnates and stars such as Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, William Holden, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
How did he acquire these clients? she wondered. Her grandfather left notes that told a small part of the story in his own understated words.
She learned that from the start of his career in the 1920s, he knew his talent would not be enough. His school counselors had warned him he couldn’t succeed as an architect because “black people won’t have the money to hire you--and white people won’t hire you because you’re black.”
But Williams, born in 1894 and orphaned at 4, had been raised by a positive-thinking foster mother to abhor negativity. After graduating from Los Angeles Polytechnic high school, he signed up for every good architecture class he could find in L.A., including those at USC. He took jobs at firms where he could learn the profession, even those that refused to pay him a living wage. He entered minor design competitions, winning over architects with better credentials. He opened an office and designed his first house for a man who had been a high school buddy and who remembered his skill.
In the 1930s, he wrote these words:
“During the early years of my practice, prospective home builders frequently came into my office without being aware of my color. . . . Perhaps they had seen somewhere a house of my design, liked it and inquired until they discovered the name of the architect. . . . Yet, in the moment that they met me and discovered they were dealing with a Negro, I could see many of them ‘freeze.’ Their interest in discussing plans waned instantly. Their one remaining concern was to discover a convenient exit. . . .”
Williams developed a way to keep them in their seats.
He would enter the room, listen to them stutter as they explained what they wanted--and watch their discomfort as they tried to get away quickly. “We’re just looking around,” they would say, trying not to be too rude. After they had said what they intended to spend, he would surprise them by gently rejecting them first.
“Sorry. I must make it a rule never to build any home” for that small an amount, he would say. Then he would quickly add: “However, if you care to spend a few minutes, I’ll be happy to give you some good ideas for your home.”
Who could refuse free ideas from such a talent? The reluctant visitors would watch him sketch their dream home and tell him what kind of rooms they envisioned and how they wanted to live. Some relaxed after this treatment and hired him after all.
Hudson learned of another great skill her grandfather developed.
The man had a gift for on-the-spot renderings of homes people envisioned in their minds. But he realized that many white clients were not used to having a black person sit close to them. Nor could he bend over them and sketch, as some of his white colleagues did. So Williams decided to sit across the table from his clients, which meant he had to perfect the skill of drawing upside-down.
Veteran Westside real estate agent Jeff Hyland, who has written about L.A.'s historic homes, says very few people realized Williams was black. He “created some of the great, classic homes of this city.” Hyland cites a Bel-Air residence built for Jay Paley and now owned by Baron Hilton. “Wrought-iron gates open into a drive that winds uphill to a mansion of exquisitely detailed American colonial style.
“There’s a graciousness to his work that has always been copied by other architects,” Hyland says. “Realtors and homeowners take great pride in Williams-designed homes. In fact, we often run into problems of people who claim their homes are designed by him even though they are not.”
Interestingly, Hyland says, “he designed really important commercial structures as well as glorious homes. Other architects were known as specialists in one thing or the other.”
As Hudson continued her research, she realized that her grandparents consciously decided not to make a big deal over what he did for a living. They decided to live within the African American community and to raise their two daughters in a nurturing atmosphere. They chose Lafayette Square, just south of Hancock Park--an enclave of big, elegant houses with manicured lawns. It was there that Williams built a house in which he raised his two daughters, who married and settled in the same neighborhood, and who had children who are now raising their children there.
Hudson remembers an idyllic youth, with both sets of grandparents and an array of aunts, uncles and cousins all living nearby. Her two grandpas were best friends from boyhood, she says.
Grandfather Hudson, a dentist and lawyer, was known for much more than his civil rights work. He also co-founded the Broadway Federal Bank.
Her own father, a retired lawyer, is an officer of Broadway Federal. Her brother, Paul Claude Hudson, also a lawyer, is now president and chief executive of the bank.
“Grandfather Williams was the first of his race to become a member of the American Institute of Architects and a fellow of it, but he never brought home to us the details of his triumphs, his troubles or his work.” She believes he shared everything with his wife throughout the years, but always behind closed doors.
After more than 10 years of research into her grandfather’s life and work, Hudson wasn’t sure she could find a publisher for her book. Williams still wasn’t a household name. During the early ‘90s overhaul of the Beverly Hills Hotel, for example, Hudson says the hotel management asked to borrow her grandfather’s original plans. “They said they wanted to re-create a very elegant suite he had designed, with a grand piano. I brought the plans for them to use and asked if they would call it the Paul Williams suite or at least acknowledge in some way his contribution to the design of the hotel. They said they would.”
Yet in the hoopla that accompanied the reopening of the hotel, she says, she saw nothing. “There were press kits many inches thick--none of which mentioned Paul Williams.”
The hotel’s public relations director, Lisa Marriott, says there is a historic suite “affectionately nicknamed” for Williams.
Hudson’s battles have not all been uphill. In the early ‘90s, Rizzoli senior editor David Morton, who specializes in architecture, came to town for an AIA meeting. He heard about Hudson’s book project and went to look at some of Williams’ work.
“It was overwhelming stuff. He did so much, and of such high quality, and from so very early in his career. It was unusual that anyone so young could do so much in so many different styles, and do it all so well,” Morton says. “Mediterranean, classical, Colonial and even modern. He could do anything . . . which is very rare for an architect.”
Rizzoli published Hudson’s book, “Paul R. Williams, Architect: A Legacy of Style,” in 1993, and it was a sellout, Morton says. Filled with lush photos of the elegant homes and public buildings created by Williams, it was what the editor describes as “a big, beautiful coffee table book,” priced at $50. It will be reissued this fall, in hardcover and paperback.
In 1994, Rizzoli also published the author’s book for children about Williams, “The Will and the Way.”
Hudson is delighted, of course. But not content.
She is working on a play about both her grandfathers, she says.
She also spends much of her time these days speaking about Williams and his work, debating where to donate his collected papers and plans, and deciding (with advice from her brother) how to further memorialize the career of a man who gave so much to Los Angeles.
Bettijane Levine can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.