In 1992, when Los Angeles caught fire following Rodney King’s verdict, one of the buildings claimed by the fire was a bank at the intersection of South Broadway and 45th Street, located on the border of the historic South Central and South Park. .
The Broadway Federal Savings & Loan was once a building in Woolworth, but in 1955 it was turned into a bank by Paul R. Williams – the prominent and prolific Los Angeles architect who designed private homes for many celebrities (among them Frank Sinatra, Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), as well as churches, hotels, commercial buildings and even the famous Beverly Hills hotel logo font.
Indeed, after the bank was completed, Williams deposited his important papers there in a safe place.
So when the building caught fire in the 1992 uprising, much of the archival legacy of an architect who helped define the Southern California design aesthetic for much of the 20th century also caught fire. Not to mention the legacy of one of the country’s most notable black architects with a number of “firsts” to his name: the first licensed architect in California, the first African-American to become a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the first to receive the AIA Gold Medal.
Or at least that’s how the story unfolded.
It turns out that the fire that destroyed Broadway Federal Savings & Loan did not, as has long been reported, wipe out Williams’ legacy. While some of his business records were indeed lost in this fire, most of the architect’s thousands of original drawings were safely elsewhere.
Which means that there is an archive of Paul R. Williams – and that it contains approximately 35,000 architectural plans, 10,000 original drawings, in addition to blueprints, hand-colored renderings, period photographs and correspondence. And, on Tuesday morning, the Getty Research Institute (GRI) and USC’s School of Architecture are expected to announce a joint acquisition of Williams ‘granddaughter, Karen Elyse Hudson, who has long been Williams’ primary job steward.
Dean of USC Architecture Milton’s curry, which helped facilitate acquisition, says the archives help fill in the gaps in 20th-century Los Angeles modernism. It will also help inform Williams’ thinking and process.
“He is one of the few black architects operating at the scale and capacity of many of his white peers,” said Curry, who added that he “has accomplished a legacy that very few architects have. accomplished during their lifetime “.
It also helps come full circle in Williams’ work: a native Angeleno, he studied architectural engineering at USC, from which he graduated in 1919.
For the Getty Research Institute, the acquisition adds another important resource to an already prestigious archive that includes many key players in Southern California architecture in the 20th and 21st centuries, including Welton Becket (designer of the Music Center), Pierre Koenig (of hill-hugging Stahl House), John Lautner (the spaceship Chemosphere) and Frank Gehry (the hot Disney Room).
“It will really shed an incredible light on a better understanding of architecture in Los Angeles – that it was not just about individual architects, but a network of professionals,” says Maristella Casciato, senior curator of the architecture of the GRI. She notes that while Williams worked independently as a director of his own studio, he also collaborated with many large Los Angeles companies at the time on major projects, including LAX.
Its archives also serve as a chronicle of nearly a century of architecture in the region.
Williams was born in 1894 and died in 1980 – and his career as a designer spanned the graceful, undulating forms of Spanish Revival architecture to the more rectilinear forms of mid-century Modernism. (Think: the series of intersecting boxes that make up the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building at W. Adams Boulevard and S. Western Avenue, completed in 1949.)
“It captures the start of the jet era with the LAX design,” says Casciato. “He’s capturing this big change in the profession. It is a wealth that I cannot even describe.
“Technically, the level of detail, the sharpness of the designs… it could have been drawn yesterday,” adds Curry. “He had a command.
The Williams archive will also serve as the cornerstone of Getty’s 2 years African American History Initiative. This program, led by curator LeRonn P. Brooks, has already acquired critical material in other fields, including the artist’s Los Angeles archives. Betye Sarre, a key player in the black arts movement, and the photographic archives of Johnson Publishing House, the editors of Ebony and Jet magazines. (This latter archive was acquired in collaboration with three other philanthropic foundations and is shared by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the GRI.)
The acquisition couldn’t come at a more critical time – when the nation counts with centuries of structural racism.
Williams, Curry notes, “bore the scars of the battle of racism.”
The fairly famous architect learned to draw upside down so he could sketch ideas for white clients who might not have wanted to sit next to him. And he often walked around construction sites with his hands clasped behind his back because he didn’t know how a handshake from a black man would be received.
“The circumstances in which we find ourselves now give us an additional impetus to reflect on the lack of diversity in our discipline,” says Curry. “At USC, we talk about citizen architect. We pushed the idea that architecture should be more inclusive. But it is an accelerator for us. Acquiring the Paul Williams Archives is a time to redouble our efforts to create diversity in our school.
“We shouldn’t,” he adds, “have to wait another 100 years. “
Further reading on architect Paul R. Williams