Courtesy of KCET/PBS SoCal.
Note: This is an encore post from 2020. The documentary is online here.
Long renowned for its excellent documentaries and intelligent programming, KCET PBS SoCal premieres another strong work with its moving portrait of pioneering African American architect Paul R. Williams in “Hollywood’s Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story.” Co-producers/co-directors Royal Kennedy Rodgers and Kathy McCampbell-Vance focus on Williams’ inspiring story with an insightful production as graceful and stylish as the man himself.
Born in Los Angeles in 1894 after his parents moved from Memphis looking for a healthier climate, Williams was orphaned at the age of 4, separated from his brother Chester Jr. and raised by a foster family. Scolded by a guidance counselor for considering a career in architecture, Williams transformed himself into one of Southern California’s premier designers of elegant, refined homes.
Frank Sinatra goes over plans for his home with architect Paul R. Williams and Williams’ daughter, interior decorator Norma Harvey. Photo from Ebony Magazine, used in “Hollywood’s Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story.” Courtesy of KCET/PBS SoCal.
Inspired by his foster mother to dream big, work hard, and pursue his passion, Williams followed a circular path through art sessions, landscape design training, architectural engineering classes at USC and apprenticing in some of Los Angeles’ top architectural firms before establishing his own practice. Coming of age at the same time as the West’s most booming city, Williams found more freedom and opportunity to chase his dream.
Williams ingratiated himself with mentor figures such as architect Reginald Johnson and U.S. Sen. Frank Flint (R-Calif). His mastery of diverse architectural styles led silent film star Lon Chaney to hire him to design a glamorous but classy residence for himself. Other Hollywood icons such as Cary Grant, Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, and Frank Sinatra followed, winning him the nickname “architect to the stars.” After becoming friends with client, comedian Danny Thomas, Williams later designed St. Jude Children’s Hospital for free.
Current residents of Williams-designed houses like Disney CEO Robert Iger and producer Steve Tisch praise the luxuriousness and quality of their homes, extolling such touches as romantic curving staircases and grand, expansive entranceways featured onscreen. Christopher Hawthorne, chief design officer for Los Angeles, extols Williams’ designs, arguing for the historic preservation of these iconic structures.
Tenacious as well as supremely talented, Williams contested racism along the way. The refined man found himself unwelcome in hotels or restaurants he had designed, and endured having to draw upside-down and on the opposite side of the table from his white clients. Williams and his family were also restricted from living in many of the neighborhoods where he built homes.
An interior of a Paul R. Williams home, shown in “Hollywood’s Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story,” courtesy of KCET/PBS SoCal.
The first African American to become a member of the American Institute of Architects in 1923, Williams excelled in commercial buildings as well. Such businesses as legendary Hollywood restaurants Perino’s and Chasen’s, department store Saks Fifth Avenue, talent agency Music Corporation of America, and the Beverly Hills Hotel, with its iconic script signage in his own handwriting, feature his sleek and dazzling designs.
Besides showcasing his work, the producers highlight Williams’ enduring legacy contributing to the betterment of others, especially the African American community. The architect promoted affordable housing and opportunities for disadvantaged youth, including building the 28th Street YMCA for youngsters in similar situations to those in which he grew up. He designed the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building which serviced the needs of fellow African Americans and helped found Broadway Federal Bank, which provided financial services of minorities in Los Angeles.
Timely and compelling, the documentary features interviews with Williams’ grandchildren as it reveals how the dignified Williams employed dazzling talent and strong perseverance to rise to the top of his profession as he battled racism and prejudice.
Released to coincide with Black History Month, the documentary premieres Thursday, February 6, at 8 p.m. on KCET PBS SoCal, later streaming on PBSSoCal.org and airing on PBS stations across the country.