Perhaps no other architect has shaped the landscape of Los Angeles as much as Paul Revere Williams. Many of his designs have become synonymous with the city itself. It is Williams’ handwriting, after all, that spells out “The Beverly Hills Hotel” on the outside of the famed pink lodging, which he was pegged to remodel in 1941. The iconic signage should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a movie or television show set in L.A. as it has appeared in pretty much every montage about the city featured onscreen. But the “Pink Palace” is hardly the only Paul Williams’ creation to be showcased in a production.
With over 3,000 works credited to his name, Williams was nothing if not prolific. Los Angeles born and bred, he attended the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in New York and then returned to L.A. where he opened his own firm in 1922 at the age of 28. A pioneer in every sense of the word, Paul was not only the first African American to join the American Institute of Architects in 1923, but in 1957 he became the first black person elected to AIA’s College of Fellows and was the first to be given the institute’s prestigious Gold Medal, which he was awarded posthumously in 2017.
Despite the rampant racism prevalent in the early and mid 20th century, Williams became the go-to architect for the Hollywood elite, building homes for such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart and Lucille Ball, and earning the nickname “Architect to the Stars.”
While revered by those who hired him, he still faced prejudice. Per the Los Angeles Times, “To forestall conflict with white clients, who might balk at sitting next to him, Williams learned how to sketch his designs upside down — a skill that became his trademark.”
It was also not lost on Williams that many of the tony neighborhoods in which he designed properties had restrictions barring African Americans from residing there. But the constraints did not deter him. As his granddaughter Karen Hudson told NPR, “He believed that for every home and every commercial building that he could not buy and that he could not live in, he was opening doors for the next generation.”
Gifted in a myriad of architectural styles, Williams eventually branched out of the residential market, lending his designs to office buildings, restaurants, hotels and even churches.
By the time of his passing in 1980, Williams had built more than 2,000 properties in Los Angeles alone. Many of the structures went on to find fame on both the big and small screens. In honor of Black History Month, a look at some of his works’ most famous appearances can be found in the gallery.