Born in downtown Los Angeles on February 18, 1894, architect Paul R. Williams would design some of Los Angeles’ most celebrated homes and structures. In an era where architects typically majored in one style, he excelled in every architectural style, making him one of the most renowned architects, not just in Los Angeles, but throughout the world. While he is often celebrated for the exquisite homes he designed for Hollywood’s elite, his other projects showcased the diversity of his design interests and his architectural acuteness. In 2017, the American Institute of Architects posthumously awarded Williams its Gold Medal, the highest honor for an American architect. The honor is a testament to the endurance of his work, which will be heralded for generations to come. Despite the discriminatory racial practices that Williams encountered during his career, he exceeded in a field where he was often “the first” or “the only one.” Here are seven of Williams’ outstanding architectural feats, among the more than 2,000 projects.
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Beverly Hills Hotel, Beverly Hills, California
In the 1940s, the owners of the Beverly Hills Hotel hired Williams to renovate and update the property that catered to Hollywood’s stars. With an eye towards elegance, Williams transformed the already famous hotel into an iconic destination. He designed the pink, green, and white color scheme that the hotel is now known for, as well as the script logo that welcomes visitors to its lush grounds. The 1949 renovation — which has remained largely untouched — included the Palm Court Terrace and the Fountain Coffee Room, which is famed for its classic banana wallpaper created by CW Stockwell. For decades, Hollywood’s royalty have frequented the hotel because of its impeccable design and understated elegance, which are testaments to Williams’ legendary style.
Founder's Church of Religious Science, Los Angeles, California
They say it pays to have friends in high places. When Dr. Ernest Holmes decided to create a church building to house his congregants, he called on his friend Paul to design the campus. Williams designed an elliptically-shaped church building that he felt was “the perfect symbol for the wholeness, unity, unending and all-inclusive power of love” outlined in the Science of Mind teachings. The church sat within a verdant garden peppered with sculptures celebrating renowned philosophers. The entire project cost $3.5 million, and it remained untouched until a 2016 renovation. Today, the church is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Hotel Granada, Bogotá, Colombia
Williams’ illustrious career and global reputation prompted the owners of the Hotel Granada in Bogotá, Colombia to commission the architect to add onto the popular luxury hotel in the 1940s; Williams was tasked with adding a 14-story addition to the 1920s building. He added a “bit of California glitz and glamour with a decided South American flair,” which produced a commanding complex that covered an entire city block. Several apartment buildings, two night clubs, twenty shops, and 310 guest rooms resided in the newly renovated space. On April 9, 1948, however, the hotel was badly damaged during the Bogotazo riots that followed the assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. Three years later, the hotel’s remaining structures were demolished and replaced with the headquarters of the Banco de la República.
La Concha Motel, The Neon Museum, Las Vegas, Nevada
While Googie-inspired buildings originated in Southern California in the late 1940s, their popularity would expand through the ‘60s, when Williams was commissioned to design a motel that could compete with the hotel-casinos planted on Las Vegas’ famous strip. While Googie architecture is considered “esthetically unrestrained” and at first seemingly incompatible with Williams’ style, the talented architect successfully created a drive-up motel replete with neon signs that did in fact grab the attention of tourists with its bright and bold features, yet still retains the architect’s elegant architectural DNA. Today the 1,100-square-foot La Concha Motel lobby remains, thanks to architectural historians and preservationists; the lobby serves as the visitors’ center at the Neon Museum, a museum that features the best (and worst) of Las Vegas’ in-your-face neon signs.
Nickerson Gardens Housing Project, Los Angeles, California
Nickerson Gardens, a public housing facility located in Watts, California, opened in 1954. The architectural project showcased Williams’ commitment to providing exemplary housing to those who were neither rich nor famous. The 1,110-unit project sat on 55 acres and included a neighborhood center, meeting rooms, a gymnasium that could accommodate more than 500 people, playgrounds and theater spaces to foster a sense of community among residents. He also provided lush gardens, landscapes and the strategic positioning of walls within the apartments to instill a sense of privacy within the extensive complex. Williams’ approach and aesthetics were lauded as models that future public housing complexes should emulate.
Eventually, however, the well-designed structure created to foster harmony and community couldn’t protect its residents from the societal ills that had pushed them there. When the 1965 Watts Riots erupted, Nickerson Gardens was a hotbed, causing government officials to question the wisdom of creating isolated, highly concentrated areas stricken by poverty.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee
Before St. Jude’s became the internationally-known nonprofit that appeals to our hearts and pocketbooks on TV, the vision for its original design sat in Paul R. Williams’ mind. After he designed the home of Danny Thomas, a Tennessee-based entertainer, Thomas invited him to design the one-of-a-kind hospital that would provide research and care for children battling cancer, without any cost to their families. Williams agreed and even donated the plans for the first phase of construction. He also served as a board member of the St. Jude Hospital Foundation. The hospital was dedicated in 1962, and to date has served families throughout every state in the U.S. and the world. Williams brought to life Thomas’ vision for the hospital’s groundbreaking work, which is quoted on the hospital’s website: “No child should die in the dawn of life."
Sunset Plaza Apartments, Los Angeles, California
In the 1930s, while many Americans dreamed of owning a home, many Angelenos dreamed of living in the city’s luxurious apartments located in the heart of Hollywood. Designed in 1936 for Hollywood photographer Frank S. Hoover, the Sunset Plaza Apartments offered all of the amenities of a private residence plus the luxurious perks of a hotel: a pool, tennis court, and sprawling landscapes. The apartments quickly became attractive to the city's high-profile residents and became a popular location for studio photo shoots. From 1980 to 1987, the apartments sat on the City of Los Angeles’ list of Historic-Cultural Monuments — until they were demolished.
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