Architect Paul Williams’ archive, thought lost to fire, is safe. The Getty and USC will acquire it
In 1992, when Los Angeles went up in flames in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, one of the buildings claimed by fire was a bank at the intersection of South Broadway and 45th Street, located on the border of Historic South Central and South Park.
The Broadway Federal Savings & Loan had once been a Woolworth’s building, but in 1955 it was transformed into a bank by Paul R. Williams — the prominent and prolific Los Angeles architect who designed private homes for numerous celebrities (among them, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), as well as churches, hotels, commercial buildings and even the font for the famous Beverly Hills Hotel logo.
Indeed, after the bank’s completion, Williams deposited his important papers there for safe-keeping.
So when the building went up in flames during the ’92 uprising, so did much of the archival legacy of an architect who helped define the aesthetics of Southern California design though much of the 20th century. Not to mention the legacy of one of the country’s most notable Black architects with a rack of “firsts” to his name: the first licensed architect in California, the first African American to become a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the first to receive the AIA Gold Medal.
Or at least that’s how the story went.
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.
It turns out that the blaze that destroyed the Broadway Federal Savings & Loan didn’t, as has long been reported, erase Williams’ legacy. While some of his business records were indeed lost in that fire, most of the architect’s thousands of original drawings were safe at another location.
Which means that there is a Paul R. Williams archive — and it contains approximately 35,000 architectural plans, 10,000 original drawings, in addition to blueprints, hand-colored renderings, vintage photographs and correspondence. And, on Tuesday morning, the Getty Research Institute (GRI) and USC’s School of Architecture are expected to announce a joint acquisition from Williams’ granddaughter Karen Elyse Hudson, who has long served as the principal steward of Williams’ work.
USC architecture dean Milton Curry, who was instrumental in facilitating the acquisition, says the archive helps fill the gaps of Los Angeles Modernism in the 20th century. It will also help illuminate Williams’ thinking and process.
“This is one of the few Black architects operating at the scale and capacity that many of his white peers operated at,” says Curry, who added, he “accomplished a legacy that very few architects accomplished in their lifetime.”
It also helps bring Williams’ work full circle: A native-born Angeleno, he studied architectural engineering at USC, graduating in 1919.
For the Getty Research Institute, the acquisition adds another important resource to an already prestigious archive that includes many of the key players of Southern California architecture in the 20th and 21st century, including Welton Becket (designer of the Music Center), Pierre Koenig (of the hill-hugging Stahl House), John Lautner (the spaceship-esque Chemosphere) and Frank Gehry (the ebullient Disney Hall).
“This will really shed an incredible light on understanding architecture better in Los Angeles — that it wasn’t just individual architects, but a network of professionals,” says Maristella Casciato, the GRI’s senior curator of architecture. She notes that though Williams worked independently as the principal of his own studio, he also collaborated with many of the big Los Angeles firms of the era on major projects, including LAX.
His archive also serves as a chronicle of almost a century of architecture in the region.
Williams was born in 1894 and died in 1980 — and his career as a designer spans the graceful, undulating forms of Spanish Revival architecture to the more rectilinear shapes of Modernism at mid-century. (Think: the series of intersecting boxes that comprise his firm’s Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building at W. Adams Boulevard and S. Western Avenue, completed in 1949.)
“It captures the beginning of the jet age with the design of LAX,” says Casciato. “It captures this big change in the profession. It is a richness that I cannot even describe.”
“On the technical level, the level of detail, the crispness of the drawings ... it could have been drawn yesterday,” adds Curry. “He had a command.”
Williams’ archive will also function as a cornerstone of the Getty’s 2-year-old African American History Initiative. That program, led by curator LeRonn P. Brooks, has already acquired critical documents in other areas, including the archive of Los Angeles artist Betye Saar, a key player in the Black Arts Movement, and the photographic archive of the Johnson Publishing Company, the publishers of Ebony and Jet magazines. (That latter archive was acquired in collaboration with three other philanthropic foundations and is shared by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the GRI.)
The acquisition couldn’t come at a more critical moment — as the nation reckons with centuries of structural racism.
Williams, Curry notes, “bore the battle scars of racism.”
The architect, quite famously, learned how to draw upside down so that he could sketch out ideas for white clients who may not have wanted to sit alongside him. And he often walked around construction sites with his hands clasped behind his back since he was unsure how a handshake from a Black man would be received.
“The circumstance around which we find ourselves now give us additional impetus to reflect on the lack of diversity in our discipline,” says Curry. “At USC, we talk about the citizen architect. We have been pushing the notion that architecture has to be more inclusive. But this is an accelerant for us. The acquisition of Paul Williams’ archives is the moment to double down on creating diversity in our school.”
“We shouldn’t,” he adds, “have to wait another 100 years.”
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