A Photographer Follows Paul Revere Williams Into the West

Paul Revere Williams came by his nickname “architect to the stars” over a career that saw his designs dot the wealthiest enclaves of Southern California, leaving a silver-screen-size impact during the decades coinciding with Hollywood’s golden era. He created homes for Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball, among others, and helped erect elegant municipal, federal and commercial developments as far afield as Washington, D.C. In two best-selling books, he championed affordable housing for a new generation of homeowners.

But in those same decades racial discrimination and prejudice were still so unrelenting that many enamored of Williams’s achievements were unaware that he was Black, and his life and legacy, consigned to segregated professional and social worlds, were long obscured. That is no longer the case, as Hollywood’s elite from Hancock Park to Beverly Hills scramble for documented mansions in the array of revival styles he employed. Architectural historians are expanding on the research and writing by Karen E. Hudson, his granddaughter and archivist, that first spurred his rediscovery in the early 1990s. And devotees of his signature design vocabulary are enhancing their coffee tables with “Regarding Paul R. Williams: A Photographer’s View,” a collection of distinctive black-and-white images by the Los Angeles photographer Janna Ireland, published in 2020.

Even during his lifetime, though, a significant, multilayered body of Williams’s work largely slipped through the cracks of celebrity real-estate and construction coverage. (Williams died in 1980.) It forms a gap in the recognition that is finally being afforded his prolific career. Now, in a new series of photographs, Ireland has re-engaged with Williams to help chronicle how, from the early 1930s through the 1960s, the urbane, matinee-idol-handsome architect from Los Angeles made his mark on the rapidly transforming western landscape of Nevada and the resort, gambling and tourist industries taking root there. Ireland’s photographs, commissioned by the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, are on view there through Dec. 2 in the exhibition “Janna Ireland on the Architectural Legacy of Paul Revere Williams in Nevada,” which then travels to the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas.

“Seeing Williams working in Nevada in new ways was such a revelation,” Ireland said, “but also, as clients from Los Angeles bought property there, to see the connections in his architecture between Southern California and Nevada. I hope this inspires people to preserve more of his work.” She spoke in a Zoom interview from her studio in the garden of the 1913 California Craftsman house where she lives with her husband and two sons.

Daonne Huff, director of public programs and community engagement at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and a participant in a symposium at the Reno museum, said the exhibition has allowed Ireland, 37, to build on her bond with an architect from another era and his work. “For both, it’s about structures as portraits,” said Huff, “about the layers of lives lived there.”

To solidify that affinity, Ireland said, she has adhered to black-and-white photography and natural light, “so all those extra details of colors and fabrics, wallpaper, interior furnishings and multiple light sources get removed for a focus on the details of the architecture.”

But her sense of connection runs deeper. Williams, born in 1894 in Los Angeles and orphaned at 4, found in church friends of his parents a foster family that nurtured his drive and self-confidence to withstand the racism around him, and supported his ambition to become an architect. The high school instructor he confided his aspirations to did not. “‘Who ever heard of a Negro becoming an architect,’ he said,” Williams told Ebony magazine in a 1947 profile.

Ireland had a similar experience as a Black high school student in Philadelphia when she said she wanted to study photography at New York University. “They told me N.Y.U. really wasn’t for someone from my background,” Ireland said. In 2007 she graduated with a B.A. in photography from N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts, and in 2013 earned her M.F.A. from the department of art at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Ireland learned of Williams when she was approached in 2016 by Barbara Bestor, executive director of the Julius Shulman Institute in Los Angeles, who was planning a show on Williams. “I wanted to start a discourse around Williams’s work that wasn’t based on models and blueprints but in photography,” Bestor said. The artist James Welling, a teacher of Ireland’s at U.C.L.A, mentioned her interest in house portraiture. Curated by Bestor, “There is Only One Paul R. Williams: A Portrait by Janna Ireland” opened on Dec. 9, 2017, at the Woodbury University Hollywood gallery.

Williams, who drove a streamlined Cord motor car manufactured by the automobile company founded by Errett Lobban (“E.L.”) Cord, a major residential client in Beverly Hills, was summoned to Nevada in 1934 by Luella Garvey, a wealthy Pasadena doyenne drawn, like many, to the state as a tax haven, and to Reno for a quickie divorce from a second husband. To announce her prominence in an exclusive new neighborhood, Williams designed a genteel mansion in a westernized Colonial Revival style. Despite the restraint, Ireland’s photographs show such hallmark Williams flourishes as the swirl of a grand entrance staircase or imposing mullioned windows inside, and outside, the New Orleans-style ironwork he favored as reflecting his racial heritage.

In 1938, Williams bested fierce competition to design Reno’s First Church of Christ, Scientist. Unsuccessfully repurposed as a theater in 1998, it sits empty while the City of Reno decides its fate. In her starkly tender photographs Ireland transforms Williams’s stalwart pews into stand-ins for long-departed parishioners while the peeling facade’s sunburst window observes the ignominies of time.

Before World War II drafted Williams as an architect for the Navy, it deposited him about 15 miles outside the Las Vegas city limits where Basic Magnesium Inc. was producing metal used in airplanes, bullets and bombs. Williams was tasked with designing Carver Park, segregated housing for BMI’s 3,000 Black workers. “They were mostly recruited from Arkansas and Louisiana,” said Carmen Beals, the show’s curator, and they found they had not left the attitudes of Jim Crow behind.

The wall text for the exhibition’s entrance comes from an article Williams wrote for American Magazine in 1937. “Today I sketched the preliminary plans for a large country house which will be erected in one of the most beautiful residential districts in the world,” it reads in part. “Sometimes I have dreamed of living there. I could afford such a home.” But by paragraph’s end, Williams has dismissed the possibility, “because … I am a Negro.”

He had already taught himself to draw and write upside down so white clients wouldn’t worry about the tall, impeccably dressed Williams sitting next to them, and to stand or walk with his hands clasped nonchalantly behind his back so they could avoid a handshake.

Prevented as a Black architect for white clients from developing an individual style, Williams continued to hone a range, and in 1941 he delivered to E.L. Cord a cowboy-country estate in Nevada’s remote Fish Lake Valley. Cord, said David Walker, executive director of the Nevada Museum of Art, “was convinced that the Japanese were going to take out Southern California,” and Williams’s ranch spread — including the ubiquitous Circle L brand he designed — was fortified to wait out the war. Traveling there, Ireland photographed enfiladed rooms in knotty pine, and glass-front built-ins abandoned to a lone rifle and scant rows of books.

Nearly as isolated was the Lovelock Inn, a motel Cord commissioned in 1949 for his brother-in-law, a tarnished Louisiana politician. The painful incongruity wasn’t lost on Ireland when she road-tripped to the distant spot on US 40. Ireland highlighted the motel’s twin-bedded geometries and flat veranda stretching to an arid vanishing point.

Where, then, did Williams stay as he traveled between states, or wanted to sit down to a meal, when generally every establishment except those listed in “The Negro Motorist Green Book” was off-limits? “That is the biggest mystery of all,” said Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Libraries. “The most important thing is how he dealt with racism in his era.”

As Karen Hudson wrote in an email, “he rarely stayed for any length of time in cities where he was not welcome to stay …. In other cities, often the client found him housing in the homes of their friends or family.” Another Black visitor, the Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, in 1935 described Reno as “a very prejudiced town with no public places where Negroes could eat … no Negro section as such” save “a scrubby little area across the railroad tracks where the Colored Club for gambling was located.”

As Ireland’s photographs reveal, Williams’s final Reno project, the El Reno Apartments of 1937, were in fact two-bedroom houses prefabricated from steel. An inveterately savvy businessman, Williams served as company consultant, his name featured prominently in its advertisements. The metal was made to look like painted wood, with jaunty bay windows and miniaturized versions of classic Williams ironwork on the outside, and space-saving ingenuities indoors.

The continuing flow of Blacks to Las Vegas after the war also generated Nevada’s first middle-class housing development for African Americans, Williams’s Berkley Square of 1954.

Bearing out Williams’s credo of affordable housing for even the most modest young families, the exteriors carry insistent remnants of Williams’s architectural input.

The Las Vegas Williams would have experienced in the 1960s was a different proposition, a glamorous place where white movie stars rubbed elbows with white mobsters while Black performers in the Strip’s hotels and casinos weren’t allowed to dress there or swim in the pools.

Williams responded with an inventive approach to Googie architecture, the La Concha Motel of 1961, a design so ebullient that its former lobby now extends a winged welcome to the popular Neon Museum. But Ireland said her favorite Williams structure in Nevada is the Guardian Angel Shrine (1964), built for Morris “Moe” Dalitz, a Jewish casino owner and Bugsy Siegel associate who wanted a church for his Catholic employees. It was rechristened the Guardian Angel Cathedral in 1977, with a certain show-business flair. In Ireland’s photographs, every detail seems to point skyward in a gesture of promise, optimism or hope.

“I wanted to celebrate Williams’s different architecture in Nevada,” Ireland said, “so that someone would see one of those buildings and say, ‘I want one of those.’”