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“For most of his life, Paul Williams lived in two worlds: one as an architect and one as an African American man in his community.”
When African American architect Paul Revere Williams was born in Los Angeles in 1894, the city—like its Black population—was small but growing rapidly. This expansion provided many opportunities for architects to design homes, offices, stores, and even communities. Williams thrived in this landscape, working on everything from elaborate homes for Hollywood stars like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, to churches for African American congregations such as the First A.M.E. and Second Baptist churches, to integrated public housing projects. Yet despite his success and growing fame, Williams also faced racism and segregation, which at times made him unwelcome in the very spaces he was designing.
The archive of this prolific architect, comprising tens of thousands of sketches, blueprints, and project notes, was jointly acquired by the Getty Research Institute and the University of Southern California School of Architecture in June 2020. In this episode, Karen Elyse Hudson, author and granddaughter of the architect, and LeRonn Brooks, associate curator for modern and contemporary collections at the GRI, discuss Williams’s trailblazing work and his impact on both the field of architecture and the city of L.A.
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JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
KAREN HUDSON: For most of his life, Paul Williams lived in two worlds, one as an architect and one as an African-American man in his community.
CUNO: In this episode, I discuss the life and career of the pioneering Los Angeles architect Paul Revere Williams with his granddaughter, Karen Hudson, and Getty curator LeRonn Brooks.
The stylish and history-making modern architect, Paul Revere Williams, was born in Los Angeles in 1894. Orphaned at the age of four due to the death of his parents from tuberculosis, he was the only Black child in his elementary school class. He went on to attend the Los Angeles School of Art and Design, the LA branch of the New York-based Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, and the University of Southern California, where he studied architectural engineering. In 1921, at age 27, became the first certified African-American architect west of the Mississippi.
In June of this year, the Getty Research Institute joined with the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture to acquire Paul Williams’ architectural archive. This comprises tens of thousands of plans, original drawings, blueprints, hand-colored renderings, vintage photographs, and correspondence.
Joining me to discuss the legacy of Paul Williams is the author, Karen Hudson, who is his granddaughter, and LeRonn Brooks, the Getty Research Institute’s associate curator of the modern and Contemporary Collections.
Thank you, Karen and LeRonn, for joining me on this podcast. Karen, what was your grandfather like as a father and a grandfather?
KAREN HUDSON: Well, let me first thank you and LeRonn and the Getty Research Institute for your unwavering belief in the importance of my grandfather’s legacy. As an orphan, family was everything to him. He spoiled his wife and daughters, calling them his babies long after they were grown. My mother’s birthday, which is a great example, was Christmas Day. And my grandfather made sure that she was not slighted. So he always set up a whole birthday celebration in their playroom, and then her birthday gifts were with everybody else’s in the other room. When he passed, for some reason, she thought my dad was going to continue that, but it didn’t happen.
The idea of excellence was something he expected at all time. He led by example. But he didn’t really care what you did or what your career choice was, just that you did your best.
As grandchildren, my brother Paul and I, who’s his namesake, were the only two grandchildren for about nine years. And FAO Schwarz in New York was his favorite store. We had a puppet theater in our backyard, we had a little train that we could ride in, in our backyard. He loved toys. I think that was the kid in him. So we were the beneficiaries.
He was kind at all time[s]. But he never spoke about his work or his accomplishments. To us, he was just our grandfather, Da. And Sundays were days— Long before we were born, he took Sunday drives, my grandmother and then their daughters, to try new restaurants. When we came along, he did the same thing. Or else he was grilling in the backyard. Sundays were his day with the family.
CUNO: So what happened to him after his parents died when he was only four? Who took care of him?
HUDSON: He was raised by a foster mother, Mrs. Burnett, who was a friend of the family’s at First AME Church. And it’s very interesting. I was interviewed recently, following the acquisition, and someone asked me about his adoption. Black children were not adopted in those days, they were just taken in by friends. She had no children. She did have a husband, whom she divorced and then had another husband.
So she believed that she was the primary care giver and this was her only child. And she doted on him. She made him believe that he could do anything. And obviously, it worked.
CUNO: How old was your grandfather when she died? Did she witness his success as an architect?
HUDSON: His early success.
HUDSON: He would do anything for her. All she had to do was call and say she needed something or she wanted something, and it was sent right over.
CUNO: And what about your grandmother? And how did they meet, your grandmother and grandfather?
HUDSON: She was born in Niosho, Missouri, which was a German, Black, Native American settlement. And she was the thirteenth of fifteen children. And the family came to L.A. at the turn of the century. She attended Second Baptist Church, while he attended First AME—the first two Black churches here. And they met at a teenage gathering of all the churches, called Christian Endeavor.
And at some point when I was a child—I was one of those inquisitive children—I asked my grandmother how she met my grandfather. And she told me that she actually dated my grandfather’s older brother once. And I said, “Well, how did you happen to start dating Da?” And she said, “I thought he had potential.” They were married in 1917. They met in about 1914.
CUNO: And where did they live—that is your grandparents—and how did they negotiate the racial and social geography of the city, and of his profession?
HUDSON: Well, certainly, when they were younger, like most Blacks, they both lived near downtown or Central Avenue in the early years. They raised their daughters near 35th and Denker, in the USC area. And you know, where restrictive covenants were very much in play in Los Angeles. Black people could not live much west of there.
But in 1948, when the restrictive covenants were removed, he decided to design his own home in Lafayette Square, which he did in 1951, and they moved in in 1952. But it set off a frenzy of concern from the residents that their property values were going down. And he was already quite prominent by then. But they circulated petitions and all that to get him out.
CUNO: Did he leave or did he stay?
HUDSON: Oh. Now, he built his own home that he designed. Do you think he was going anywhere? No, he did not. He did not leave. He did not leave.
CUNO: Well, LeRonn, tell us about Paul Williams’ early career and the workings of his office. He opened his office in 1922, at the age of twenty-six, in the L.A. Stock Exchange Building, and that a year later, he became the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects, Southern California chapter. Tell us about those early years for him as an architect.
LERONN BROOKS: You know Jim, I, just looking at his career, I’m looking at the year 1920, when he served on the Los Angeles City Planning Commission. And for, you know, an African-American architect to sit on that commission in 1920 is a sign of a larger sort of infrastructure within his profession that’s supporting him, or there’s a momentum to support him.
Now, given the context of everything Karen was saying, what does it mean for a Black man in 1920 to serve on the Los Angeles City Planning Commission? And I’m looking to his mentorship. I’m looking to the people who were then supporting his career. Again, he had a young family at that particular moment, and to Karen’s point, he’s deeply embedded in the African-American community through the church and through civic organizations. But I’m looking toward to John C. Austin, who he worked with from 1921 to 1924. And he became the lead draftsman for his office. Now, that is unique.
That, for me, is a sign of somebody who mastered the sociality of that moment, being able to navigate in white spaces; but was also a master of his craft, because it is his craft, and it’s the mastery of his craft, that placed him in these particular positions. And so early in his career, his skill is placing him within the best pedigree in Los Angeles, if not in the country. And as an African-American, it is something to remark on that.
At the beginning of his career, he is mastering the sort of social economy that he would have to gather in order to make his buildings. Because what does it mean for an African-American to actually communicate the sort of confidence to white patronage that says, “We will work with you to design a home we live in”? “We will work with you to design a building we work in.”
And that required extreme confidence in an African-American from people who maybe had never had a Black classmate, a Black teacher, a Black coworker.
CUNO: Two of his early commissions—the Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles, the other one was the 28th Street YMCA, which is notable now for its portraits of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. There’s a photograph in one of your books, Karen. It shows a gathering of gentlemen at that YMCA. They’re all very well-dressed and they’re all African-American. Was that an African-American YMCA? Were there such things as racially distinct YMCAs?
HUDSON: Certainly, there were across the country, because young colored boys, and certainly not girls, were not allowed to participate in the YMCA. So in 1926, this became the first YMCA in Los Angeles for, quote, “colored boys.” Everyone who grew up in L.A. at the time, probably, African-American boys, grew up at the Y. It was and continues to be an integral part of African-American history in Los Angeles.
But he was very clear on why he put Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington into the façade of the building. And it’s in the front of the building. In his own notes, he said he believed that to see those gentlemen and to see that kind of excellence and inspiration would encourage young people every day they walked through that door to go to the Y.
At the same time he was doing that, he was the first African-American architect to design a Los Angeles Unified School District school, which was 26th Street Elementary school.
HUDSON: And it was a big deal to him because he grew up in the public schools here. So, he was switching gears all the time.
CUNO: He was a man of extraordinary taste.
HUDSON: Yes, he was.
BROOKS: Yes, he was.
HUDSON: You could get fired from his office for not dressing well. I’m serious. You have to remember, these people, every time they left that office door, they were representing him. And just like any African-American trailblazer, you had to be better to even just level the plaining field.
CUNO: When he opened his office, did he have a integrated office from the beginning? Or was he surrounded by African-American assistants?
HUDSON: Jim, you’re assuming that number one, there were any other African-American architects in 1922, or draftsmen, or anybody who had studied architecture. So no, his practice was primarily Caucasian when it began, because those were the people who had the experience of what he needed.
But to what LeRonn was saying earlier, he was very proud of being on the Planning Commission, which he served on from 1920 until his retirement in 1973. Probably ten years of that time as president. But it was important to him for two reasons. One, he always thought it was important to be a part of his community, not apart from his community. Like, many architects don’t have other interests in the politics or things that are going on. But for him, he knew that he had to know what was going on.
But as a native Angeleno, he wanted to influence the look of Los Angeles. And on the Planning Commission, he was allowed to do that. Because certainly at the time, African-American architects nowhere in this country were being given commercial projects to design.
CUNO: Yeah. He’s quite famous for his domestic architecture. And a lot of it begins early in his career. Unlike many young architects, his projects were quite substantial in size and budget and very toney, often, in location—like Beverly Hills or Pacific Palisades or Ojai. How did he get those early commissions?
HUDSON: He was very, very good. You know, it’s kind of like being the celebrity chef of the day. And you have to remember, places like Beverly Hills with the flats, they didn’t have to tear down homes to build a new one. There were open spaces. So if somebody went to an open house for a house he’d done, they’d say, “Who was your architect?” So it may turn out that there’re blocks where they have six Paul Williams homes because somebody said, “I bought the property next door. I want an architect.”
But he was such a gentleman and so in tune to providing his client with what they wanted, as opposed to what he wanted them to have, that he made a name for himself.
CUNO: I’m thinking of a couple projects he did, one in 1932, the E. L. Cord residence in Beverly Hills, which is complete with a very large swimming pool and a pool house; or the 1934 neocolonial Jay Paley house in Bel Air, with its double-height columns opening onto a manicured back lawn, which runs down to a pool. These are extraordinarily beautiful and exquisite buildings that are built in the height of the financial collapse, 1932, ’34. What was it like for him to get these kind of commissions from these people and to sustain his practice on those terms?
HUDSON: Well, for E.L. Cord, he was friends with Adam Gimbel, who owned Saks Fifth Avenue and Gimbels in New York and things. And Mr. Cord had already interviewed some other architects. And Gimbel said to him, “You should try Paul Williams.” And he had not heard of him, so he called him and— According to my grandfather, he told him, “I’m too busy. I can’t come right now.” And I don’t think Mr. Cord was happy about that. I mean, he told him the kind of things he wanted. He wanted stables for his children, entertaining, you know, 32,000 square feet.
So my grandfather said, “Okay, I can come this afternoon.” He got there and he realized E.L. Cord, you know, was the designer and owner of the Cord car at the time. And he said to my grandfather, “This is— I want this, this, and this, and how long will it take you to do the plans?”
And at that point, you know, one of the things my grandfather was a master at was being able to ascertain what made people happy. And he realized Mr. Cord had a great appreciation for speed. So he told him he could bring the preliminary plans in twenty-four hours. And Mr. Cord said, “Well, the other architects said two weeks. Do you know what you’re doing?” He was like, “No problem.” Apparently, he went home, stayed up all night. Twenty-four hours later, brought back the plans and Mr. Cord introduced him to his wife as, “This is our architect.”
For Jay Paley, certainly, he knew other people in the entertainment industry. At the time, he was heading CBS. He had been in their homes and one of the things that I don’t think people are aware of is my grandfather enjoyed the creative exchanges with rich, successful clients, whether they were Hollywood people or giants of industry. And he was comfortable in those arenas.
Let me give you an example. When he went out into his own office, John Austin was kind enough to send him work, because he was only doing commercial work at the time. So if he got a residential work, he’d send it to my grandfather to at least bid on. And the first one he sent him was for a home for $100,000. And my grandfather said, “I’ve never been in a home before that cost more than $10,000.” He said, “No problem. I’ll send you to Montecito; you’ll see how we spend $100,000.”
And he came back and said, “I think I like spending other people’s money. I think I can do this.”
CUNO: Well, LeRonn, not long after that, during the Second World War, Williams was commissioned to design a 400-unit project for 1,350 people in southeast Los Angeles. Called the Pueblo del Rio, and it was planned as open to Black Americans, and was alone, as such, among housing complexes until the late 1940s.
BROOKS: It is a— an experiment in social architecture. By social architecture, I mean what does it mean that architects gathered—and Paul Williams and a number of other architects collaborated on Pueblo del Rio. And what does it mean for them to get together make affordable housing for people on the Great Migration trek? And so in 1940, during that year, someone like Jacob Lawrence is making his Great Migration paintings, and African-Americans are leaving the South in massive numbers, and they’re spreading around the country. Going to Harlem, going to St. Louis, going to Chicago.
And here we have in Los Angeles, a sort of concept of a better society through affordable housing and decent and dignified living spaces for people who would be the sort of cultural hub of Los Angeles.
African-Americans traveling to Los Angeles at this particular moment are sort of pioneers, because they are leaving behind everything from the South. They’re leaving behind family, they’re leaving behind the things within the African-American culture, their churches, to start a new life.
And so when Paul Williams began planning these structures, these affordable structures, I have no doubt he’s thinking about civil rights; I have no doubt he’s thinking about his community; I have no doubt he is in, in some particular way, welcoming African-Americans into the city with dignity and respect.
HUDSON: I think you’re 100% right. And in 1937, along with Hilyard Robinson, he designed Langston Terrace in Washington, D.C., which was the first federal housing project for minorities in the country. And so he was looking for those kind of things in Los Angeles. And you can imagine when he was born here in 1894, he didn’t have a lot of people who looked like him. So he was certainly welcoming anybody who was coming to town.
But he also welcomed any work to help house low-income and under-served communities. And he worked as diligently on public housing and individual units as he did on a mansion in Beverly Hills.
CUNO: So at the same time as he was designing these housing projects, he was also designing the interiors of Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills and the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building, which is one of the many buildings that Williams designed for African-American businesses. How did he keep these things in balance in his career as he was building his practice?
HUDSON: I don’t know that I know the true answer. I never try to make assumptions on what my grandfather thought. But I do know that to be as prolific as he was, he had to be working on a number of things at one time. And I remember asking him one time what his favorite building was or his favorite project, and he said, “Whatever I’m working on at the time.” So you know, he could certainly switch, as many architects do, between the opportunity to do a commercial building and, you know, what he was doing with mansions and what he may have been doing with Small Homes[sic] of Tomorrow.
But he had to take something like Saks, which the first part of Saks was in three sections, and he was originally only doing the interiors, and Parkinson & Parkinson were doing the exterior, and after the first section, Mr. Gimbel asked him to do it all. As an African-American, to be able to do a commercial building like that in Beverly Hills was not only groundbreaking, but he knew whenever he got a commission like this, it was opening the doors for other people. And that was very important to him.
CUNO: well, I guess that was literally the case with the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building, which was a Black-owned business, that he was providing the image of, of what a modern American building could be, could look like for African-American audiences.
HUDSON: [over Cuno] That was founded by people he grew up with, people who were his friends. The African-American community was very small in Los Angeles, and they all knew each other, and took pride in the accomplishments of others. So he would’ve been the first person they turned to.
CUNO: How many such buildings did he design like that for Black-owned businesses?
HUDSON: Oh. If you include churches and businesses just in Los Angeles, probably forty or fifty.
CUNO: Wow. Gracious.
HUDSON: But he also did them all over the country. Because of the same reason. African-Americans took pride in the accomplishments of other African-Americans, and so they were looking for people who could embrace the same vision and commitment and mission that they had.
CUNO: And now we get to the point in his career where he’s designing the aesthetic enhancement of the Beverly Hills Hotel. The handwriting on the side of the building, the Beverly Hills Hotel, was actually his handwriting. Tell us about that.
BROOKS: Well, it’s really significant, in the sense that in Beverly Hills, in and of itself, right? What does Beverly Hills mean to Los Angeles? And what does Beverly Hills mean to the African-American community, which was nowhere, necessarily, near Beverly Hills? Paul Williams was someone who bridged communities. During the era of segregation, Paul Williams was someone who the African-American community knew had the respect of white Los Angeles, of white California, of the country, because he was so publicized in the press.
And so Paul Williams, his literal— his literal handwriting on the hotel, Beverly Hills Hotel, it meant something because it was it was a sign of someone who was a prodigy. But it was also a sign of someone who signified the best of what architecture was, and he happened to be in the body of an African-American. So you know, even the ability to sort of design or make renovations on that structure was a really, really important point because you had some of Hollywood’s best and most well-known celebrities going there by the pool. They’re there after hours, they’re there after they leave the movie set, they’re hanging out.
And Williams, his ability to sort of craft that space too meant that he was an insider. But also the irony; he’s also an outsider, when you consider the larger social context.
HUDSON: And particularly at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he was not allowed to stay, even though he was designing. I did an interview when I was doing the first book, with one of his former staff members. And they loved working on the hotel because they got to use the bungalows as their offices, and sit out by the pool and have lunch.
So this guy said he was sitting by the pool one day and Paul Williams walks out. And he motions him over, ’cause it’s his boss. He motions him— Well, my grandfather doesn’t go. And he said he was crestfallen. He thought he was in trouble about something. And then he realized that he was not allowed poolside at a table for lunch. He had to wait until Hernando Courtright, who was head of, a consort of entertainment people who owned the hotel at the time, to come out and actually lead him to a table to sit down. And often the problem was not the client. Like, the problem was not the owner of the house who hired him. But the problem were the subsequent people who worked for them.
It was not a contractor, it was a subcontractor. It was a waitress at the hotel, who resented the fact that he was even there. And to have that kind of perseverance— As LeRonn says, not only a testament to who he was as an architect, but who he was as a man, because he did not let that stand in the way. He continued to move forward and try to make a difference.
CUNO: Did he ever talk about working in those circumstances?
HUDSON: He never talked about work in those circumstances. He never brought anything unpleasant home. He did not talk to my grandmother about it, he did not talk to his children or grandchildren about it. That was something that he kept to himself.
In addition to have an incredible God-given talent, he had this positive thought process and this will to know that his life was gonna make a difference in future generations and help other architects and other African-Americans who were trying to make a difference. So he just kept it to himself.
CUNO: Yeah. LeRonn, tell me what kind of hurdles he had to overcome as an African-American architect, ’cause you’ve told me that he couldn’t sit next to his clients and he had to sit opposite the table from them; therefore, he had to make his drawings upside-down for them to see.
BROOKS: Well, part of the genius of Paul Williams is his actual ability to master his craft to the degree that it usurped segregation. Architecture is a public art, and it’s an art form that depends upon social relationships. And so as clients come to him, he has to navigate what they think about a Black man.
They know Paul Williams as a sign, as a celebrity, as someone who’s made homes for Hollywood stars that they admire. But in reality, what does it mean to sit next to a Black man? And again, given the context in which he was making or designing these buildings, he was aware of who he was as a Black man, and they were aware of who they were as white people who commissioned him because they wanted that thing. They wanted that Paul Williams home to put them in— within the conversation of the social currency of Hollywood, right?
And so he had to learn to draft upside-down across from clients because it was the social code, and because they may have been nervous about the man himself, but not his designs. And so when we consider the archive, we also have to consider part of his genius, a big part of his genius, was his ability to adapt. And so what does it mean as a person says, “I want a window over here and I want a skylight over here,” and then you’re across from them, across the table, and you’re improvising these designs across with them, as they speak to you, upside-down.
HUDSON: He used to talk about people coming to his office who didn’t know he was Black until he got there. They just knew his name. And then they tried to figure out, how can I get out of here? And he just developed some sort of Barnum & Bailey tricks like, “How much do you plan on spending on your house?” Well, if they said $8,000, he said, “I’m sorry, I don’t take commissions under 10,000.” And then they were like, you know, “Is this Black man crazy? I think we should listen to him.”
But when it came to his designs, he always wanted to include his client as his partner in this. So some of the people who wanted to leave, he would say, “Well, you know, let me take a few minutes and give you a few suggestions.” Something he wasn’t charging for, he wasn’t doing. And that’s when he realized he had to learn to draw upside-down, because these people didn’t know him. They were frightened when they saw him. And then once he did that, they were sold. They were sold. I can’t draw my name upside-down. But it’s something that if you realize that to meet your goals and to fulfill your dreams, that’s something you have to do, then he was an expert at it.
CUNO: Yeah, LeRonn mentioned that he was known as an architect to the Hollywood stars. For example, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, their residence in Palm Springs. But also Frank Sinatra’s luxurious bachelor pad. Was he flattered by that characterization? Did he find that they—Desi Arnaz, Cuban musician; and Frank Sinatra, an Italian guy from New Jersey—did he give a sense of some kind of identification with these people? Were they as much an outsider as he was an outsider, at least in initial impression?
BROOKS: You know, Jim, to Karen’s point, he had a sense of somebodyness. In terms of his ability to navigate Hollywood, he was working with a clientele in Hollywood who had that similar sense of somebodyness, a sense of stardom, a sense of self-importance, a sense of gravitas.
There’s a 1957 photograph of him sitting on the same side of the table as Frank Sinatra. And that photograph was published in Ebony magazine. And so for that photograph to be published in Ebony magazine, Frank Sinatra had to okay that. Because what did it mean for his reputation to be sitting next to an African-American at that particular moment?
And so if we think about the fifties, we’re also talking about the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement happening in, let’s say, the Montgomery bus boycott. And so it’s a form of civil rights, his very presence in these particular spaces. I’m sure the celebrities were very conscious of the Civil Rights Movement, and very conscious of their ability to affect change, if only to be seen with Paul Williams and increase his celebrity and his stature and his place within the notion of civil rights and progress. And so I don’t know that he was flattered. But I also know that they were part of an infrastructure that was supporting him, and by extension, the aims of African-Americans to excel in this country.
CUNO: Did he ever socialize with his clients?
HUDSON: No. The line was drawn. And the line was drawn by him. He was often invited to things, particularly when he did a home or something and it was finished. But he socialized totally within the African-American community. And it’s not that he was too busy to socialize. I mean, he belonged to fraternal and social organizations, he partied at clubs and participated in putting on events. But it was very important to him to separate those two worlds.
For most of his life, Paul Williams lived in two worlds, one as an architect and one as an African-American man in his community.
CUNO: He was among the team that put together the Theme Building at the Los Angeles Inernational Airport. The others were Pereira & Luckman and Welton Becket. And this was all between 1957 and 1961. What did he think about joining with those great stars of Los Angeles architecture, of which he now was one, certainly, to build something that would seem to be so exceptional in his career?
HUDSON: Well, you have to remember two things. One, people talk about, you know, so Jet Age looking or something like that. But it’s also filled with curves, just like all of Mr. Williams’ work. Curves were seminal to his designs.
He had a vision, at the same he was doing this, to have a monorail in downtown Los Angeles, which you now have renderings of, because he believed that people should walk in the sunshine and cars should be underground.
He had lots of vision for the future. But he also did what people wanted him to do. And in addition to that, any time he had a chance to do a joint venture with his peers or with other architects that he certainly had great respect for, which he did with these gentlemen, he was thrilled to do it because it’s the same sharing of the creative process. How exciting must that have been? You know, whatever business any of us are in, to get a chance to sit around and share ideas and maybe make a difference for generations to come has to be an exciting proposition.
CUNO: Do you know how he felt about the building itself? And did he live long enough to see how it was mistreated to badly by LAX itself?
HUDSON: No. By the time he retired due to illness in 1973, LAX project was still very much alive. There was still a restaurant at the Theme Building. So he never knew it was compromised.
CUNO: Yeah. And you wouldn’t even recognize it today as a building of great distinction, the way that it’s sandwiched in between all the roadways and buildings of lesser distinction at LAX.
HUDSON: I’m sure LeRonn knows much more about this than I do, but you know, L.A. is not known for its preservation. That’s all I’ll say.
CUNO: LeRonn, what do you think about the answer to that question?
BROOKS: The Theme Building, for me, represents a form of imagination, his ability to think in terms of the future and future design. So he designed buildings for projects that clients wanted. But the examples of his architecture, in terms of churches in Nevada, very futuristic. And the LAX building, very futuristic. You know, what does it mean for this kind of imagination to come from an African-American, when we were, at the same time, just arguing for basic human rights? Right?
And so to sort of workshop with his peers, on one level, that means a lateral level of respect. “We will work together on something that has never been done before.” It’s not a regimented building, not a consistent design. No, this is something that was made from an imagination that peered into a sort of futuristic space. And for an African-American architect to have something, a built structure, that spoke to a futuristic existence, in terms of its design, it’s amazing.
And how it’s being treated now, I mean, to Karen’s point, you know, L.A. does have a short memory when it comes to the structures that are sort of foundational. And it’s something we do have to sort of deal with at this particular moment.
CUNO: So the acquisition of the Paul Williams archive by USC and the Getty will make possible just the very thing that we’ve been talking about, about the preservation of a legacy. And this will be now made available to people for all of time. Tell us about the archive, what it comprises in detail, and how it is that we came to work with USC to acquire it.
BROOKS: Well, the acquisition is the result of years of a relationship between Karen and the GRI and USC. And the fact that 35,000 plans, approximately 10,000 original drawings, and so many more archival materials were stewarded by Karen for all these years, and now we are all sort of bound together—USC, the Getty, and Karen—we’re all sort of bound together to sort of try to understand what is in the archive and how it can aid in the training of Black architects and the training of people who want to understand the history of L.A., of housing and public buildings in L.A., because that full story hasn’t been told.
If we think about the plans as just bare facts, they won’t tell the story of Paul Williams. If we think about all of the material that’s coming to the Getty and USC as the product of someone who was dealing on multiple levels of public engagement—the built structures, social structures, social circles—if we think about it in sort of a dynamic way, what we’re getting is the first of its kind.
Because for me, Paul Williams is not only a great man, but he’s an example of what a true democracy can produce. Raised during an era of segregation, Paul Williams and the promise of this archive, I think, will lead toward a sort of citizen architecture. And I know Dean Curry at USC is sort of forming the graduate school of architecture program around the idea of the citizen architect, as Paul Williams was. Citizen, architect, trailblazer. But also an African-American man who’s using his genius socially to manifest built form. So the archive, for me, is a seed of something that I hope will change the field.
CUNO: Karen, what does it mean to you have the archive here in Los Angeles, shared between USC and the Getty?
HUDSON: I always try to make decisions my grandparents would make. And the choice of USC and Getty together, certainly divine intervention. I first spoke to the Getty maybe in the early nineties about the collection. And they were fascinated and came to see it a number of times, but did not have any interest in even it being given to them.
And I do believe that that sort of put me on a path where I thought the Getty just didn’t care about African-American projects or artists or the history of African-American contributions in Los Angeles and in our country. The fact that you then had an African-American art history initiative was the turning point for me, in addition to my family, in wanting to then pursue a relationship with the Getty. And in working with Dean Curry at USC, and his telling me about it, I did a little homework.
And then it was, you know, what would my grandfather think? I always try to do that. What would he think? I firmly believe he would not only be pleased to continue to be associated with his Alma Mater, USC, but he’d be immensely proud to join the Getty family. He always reached for the stars, and the idea of his archive being an inspiration to future generations, he would believe was quite exciting. He wanted to believe that there would be more architects.
He didn’t care what we became, as long as we tried our best and really embraced excellence. But he did always believe that architects do a vision for where somebody lives. He always thought he built homes, and not houses. He wanted to be on the Planning Commission because he cared about what pieces of art were hanging in a courthouse he designed or something like that. But for the Getty and USC to take this on together, all I can say is the family’s very happy.
CUNO: Well, I can tell you how proud we are at the Getty to have a role to play in the preservation of his archive and his legacy. And I know that Dean Curry is also thrilled that we can all join together in the preservation of the work. So Karen, LeRonn, thank you for joining me on this podcast episode.
BROOKS: Thank you.
HUDSON: Thank you.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and more resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts/ or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
KAREN HUDSON: For most of his life, Paul Williams lived in two worlds, one as an architect and one...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824