This year marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of L.A. architect Paul Revere Williams. If you don’t recognize the name, you know the work: The spider-like LAX Theme Building, Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills and significant parts of the Beverly Hills Hotel, including the Polo Lounge, are but a few of the 3,000 buildings Williams produced in his prolific 50-year career.
Williams was known as the architect to the stars in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, designing some of the grandest houses in town in an array of revival styles. His mastery of so many idioms and his willingness to give clients the look they wanted set him apart from L.A.'s Midcentury Modernists. But each Williams house bears his unique stamp of gentility: opulence with restraint, sophistication and warmth.
“His sense of scale and proportion is remarkable,” says architectural historian Eleanor Schrader, who has spoken often in support of granting historic status to Williams houses. “There are always these beautiful sweeping staircases in the entry, and then every other room is so livable, the flow from room to room is wonderful. Everything is meant to fit together. That’s why it is such a tragedy when any of these are lost or remodeled beyond what he would have envisioned.”
At the moment, in fact, preservationists and neighbors are battling new owners bucking to demolish two Williams creations, one on Brentwood’s Oakmont Drive and one on Beverly Hills’ Mountain Drive, to build grander structures. With his houses in great demand now and their prices shooting up, Williams and his architectural gifts are firmly in the spotlight.
Williams’ personal story is as compelling as his work. Born in downtown L.A. in 1894, orphaned by 4 and the only black child in his school, he was told by counselors that he shouldn’t strive to be an architect because white clients wouldn’t hire him and black clients couldn’t afford him. Williams nevertheless moved forward with a clear-eyed determination, becoming the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects. The ever-elegant, gracious designer learned to draw upside-down so white clients could stay comfortably a desk’s width apart and only extended his hand if the white client extended his first.
He was widely written about in his time, but today Williams’ story and architectural legacy are gaining a new audience. “Now that we have this resurgence in interest in our architectural history, I think he’s come more to life these past years,” Schrader says. “It’s his heritage, but it’s a part of our heritage too.”
Designer updates Billy Wilder House with ‘quality and restraint’
Interior designer Scott Thomas had never worked on a Paul Williams property before taking on the 1929 Billy Wilder House in Hancock Park for only its second owner, a couple looking to update now that their children had grown. Thomas immediately was impressed by Williams’ approach in the two-story, 4,426-square-foot house that featured Art Deco styling with a touch of Gothic.
“This house is restrained, elegant, tailored, thoughtful,” he says. “I decided, let’s leave all the Art Deco we can, let it flow and keep as much personality as possible.”
The first phase of renovation was the master suite — “big and luxurious for the times,” Thomas notes, but dated in its “Jack and Jill” closets. The bathroom also needed modernizing, but Thomas felt comfortable subtly altering Williams’ floor plan. “I remember reading that Williams encouraged remodeling. Things need to be updated.”
Thomas created a walk-in closet and modernized the bathroom by adding a skylighted walk-in shower and a water closet. Thomas was taken with the beauty of the original moldings, doors and window casings, and carefully refurbished or copied them.
Thomas wanted the tone to be comfort as much as luxury. “I knew I wanted to do glamorous, but I just didn’t want to be over the top,” he says. “I wanted quality and restraint to stand out, which is something Paul Williams would understand.”