Only in America, it seems, could the orphan son of a black fruit merchant get the notion that mere talent and perseverance might vault him over the barriers to entry in the architectural profession, a bastion of white men with all the right connections. Yet that is the tale of Paul Revere Williams (1894–1980), who not only had the notion but the drive to achieve his dream—becoming one of the most celebrated residential architects during the Golden Age of Hollywood and a pillar of Los Angeles’ burgeoning African-American community.

Now his story is being told through the Paul R. Williams Project, a multipronged effort based at the University of Memphis (UM) focusing on the life and work of the pioneering black architect. A comprehensive exhibit on Williams, opening Oct. 23 at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis, is the latest of many phases of the project, which includes K–12 educational outreach, an exhibition catalog, and a website that launched in February (

In addition to raising public awareness of Williams, the project aims to collect enough information to secure his place in architectural history. “Now he is a footnote, if anything,” says museum director Leslie Luebbers, who is overseeing the project. “We want to encourage scholarship.”

The initiative began in 2006, when members of AIA Memphis proposed an exhibition on Williams to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the AIA. Their interest in the California architect stemmed, in part, from the fact that his parents were Memphis natives. Williams left his personal mark on the city in 1962 with the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a project he designed for his friend, TV star Danny Thomas. But, more than anything, the subject resonated among the organizers simply as a great story.

“Here is someone who was passionate and inspired, and through that he was able to overcome obstacles that youth today can’t even imagine,” says Heather Baugus Koury, executive director of AIA Memphis. As the complexity of the research grew, however, the chapter recognized that greater expertise and resources were needed to realize the project’s potential. It approached the university art museum to partner on the project and was later joined by the Memphis chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA).

The project website contains a bibliography of more than 1,600 citations, including references to Williams found in books, newspapers, scholarly articles, and the popular press. The resources also include an expanding gallery of more than 90 architectural projects, plus references to other archival materials on Williams.

From the beginning, organizers have believed that Williams’ story of professional accomplishment and response to adversity is so compelling that it will engage young students. “Those aspects of his life can have appeal certainly to African-American youngsters, but really to youngsters of lots of different backgrounds,” says architect Jimmie Tucker, president of the Memphis chapter of NOMA. “Sometimes their options are limited just because they haven’t had the exposure.”

Last year, UM’s department of art education and AIA Memphis conducted a summer institute for K–12 teachers, weaving Williams’ buildings and life story into broad architectural themes. The next step is to develop Web-based resources to make the curriculum accessible to a wider audience. “The question is: How we can use this material to foster an understanding of architecture, but also raise kids’ awareness for later in their lives?” says Koury.

Continuing through Jan. 8, 2011, the exhibition “Paul R. Williams, Architect,” will consist of new and period photographs, models, video sequences, and historical ephemera. An interactive timeline documenting Williams’ career in the context of American social history and changes in the built environment will be featured in the exhibition and on the website. All told, the narrative will write a new chapter in understanding this extraordinary figure in American architecture, who achieved success despite an atmosphere of pervasive racism.

Paul Williams was born in Los Angeles soon after his parents migrated west with their first son, Chester Jr. By the time he was 4, both parents had died. Paul and his brother were sent to separate foster homes.

Williams was lucky: His foster mother saw to it that he attended the local Polytechnic High School, and she allowed him to explore his interest in art. That didn’t shield him from discouragement, though. Later in his life, Williams wrote an essay recounting the reaction of his guidance counselor when Williams voiced his desire to become an architect. “Whoever heard of a Negro being an architect?” the counselor barked.

Bruised but undaunted, Williams doggedly pursued an architectural education and sought professional experience in Los Angeles’ leading firms. He honed his drawing skills at a local art school while simultaneously attending night classes at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design. He worked in at least two offices before enrolling at the University of Southern California to study architectural engineering, although he didn’t earn a degree.

Already, Williams had gained attention for his design talent, winning a Pasadena planning competition and the 1919 Hollow Tile House Competition with a design for a Spanish Colonial Revival house. He was strategic in his early career, changing firms every two to three years to broaden his experience. In 1919, he entered the commercial practice of John C. Austin, which game him the opportunity to design churches, multiunit housing, and public buildings. In late 1922, Williams opened his own office in the Los Angeles Stock Exchange Building.

The practice quickly gained momentum, fed by the rapid growth of Los Angeles but sustained by Williams’ compositional talent, unfailing perfectionism, and instinct for client relations. “Williams’ designs were much like the man himself: affable, well-mannered, gracious, and graceful,” wrote architect Max Bond in a 1997 Harvard Design Magazine article. “Like the movies, his work helped define a California style of self-assured, easy worldliness.”

During the ’20s and ’30s, Williams’ practice ran nonstop. He produced houses for upper-middle-class and wealthy clients in a wide range of traditional styles in the elite subdivisions of Bel Air, Brentwood, and Beverly Hills. Yet at the core of his designs was an enduring consistency of well-organized plans, comfortable proportions, and details that were appropriate to the changing themes. As for his clients, says Luebbers: “The only advantage many of these people had over Paul Williams was skin color. And this was balanced by attributes they sought: impeccable taste, a wide range of design skills, stylistic versatility, a reputation for excellent work, and a client-centered practice.”

In time, Williams was discovered by a generation of Hollywood celebrities. After completing residences for the likes of Tyrone Power, Lon Chaney, Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and Frank Sinatra, Williams was heralded as the “architect to the stars.” These houses ran the gamut of styles, ranging from the stone-faced English Manor estate for Stanwyck to the low-slung, minimalist Ball-Arnaz Residence.

Although some of his clients presumably hired Williams because he was a hot commodity, architectural historian David Gebhard, in his introduction to the book Paul R. Williams, Architect: A Legacy of Style, offered a more complex interpretation. He said of Williams: “His white clientele certainly engaged him because they admired his architecture, but one suspects that many of these clients also came to him because he was a talented black professional. … A segment of the white upper middle class and wealthy, similarly, could demonstrate their feelings about the equality of the races by engaging him.”

Over the course of his career, Williams was admired for his appearance and demeanor as well as his talent. In photographs he always is well-tailored, with a closely cropped mustache perfectly trimmed. The physical image went along with his approach to his professional affairs and his role as a community leader: to lead by example. He wrote that if “prejudice is ever to be overcome it must be through the efforts of individual Negroes to rise above the average cultural level of their kind. Therefore, I owe it to myself and to my people to accept this challenge.”

It was not until the late 1930s that Williams began to win lucrative commercial and government commissions. Among the most important were the Music Corporation of America building (1937), the interior for the Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills (1939), and Arrowhead Springs Hotel (1940), completed with Gordon B. Kaufman. He designed a number of buildings that were central to African-American cultural life in Los Angeles. Most important were the Second Baptist Church (1924), Angelus Funeral Home (1934), and 28th Street YMCA (1926), the city’s first for “colored boys and young men.”

By the time he died in 1980, Williams held the distinction of being the first black member of the AIA, as well as the first black institute fellow. He also had amassed an impressive record of public service on municipal, state, and federal commissions. Yet major gaps remain in the historical record, due in part to the destruction of most of his firm’s records and many of its drawings in a fire during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. One hope of the project’s organizers is that new material will come to light as more people discover the website.

As his legacy grows, so does Williams’ importance as a role model for aspiring architects. While some observers caution that his pluralistic style of practice was better suited to the social circumstances of his time and place, and isn’t fitting for emulation today, no one disputes the great respect Williams deserves for opening doors that allowed others of his race to follow. “Paul Williams felt that with hard work and determination, you can live the American Dream,” says historian Wesley Howard Henderson, who studied Williams for his Ph.D. at the University of California, Los Angeles. “He was the black version of the Horatio Alger story.”