'Regarding Paul R. Williams' Honors Legacy Of LA's Barrier-Breaking Black Architect

Sep 15, 2020
Originally published on September 17, 2020 1:22 pm

Photographer Janna Ireland aims to capture intimacy and relationships in her work, which she says focuses primarily on Black life in America.

For the Los Angeles-based photographer, that has included photographing staged scenes as well as self-portraits and portraits of her family — including, most recently, of her two sons during the pandemic.

"In my work, I'm happy when all different kinds of people appreciate it, but I feel as though I'm making it for Black people," she says.

From photographer Janna Ireland's project Milk and Honey: (Left) Portrait of Ireland and her husband.(Right) Portrait of Ireland and her two sons.
Janna Ireland

In a new book, Ireland turns her lens outward, to showcase the legacy of barrier-breaking architect Paul R. Williams, and introduce his work to a larger audience.

Regarding Paul R. Williams: A Photographer's View is a collection of 280 photographs by Ireland that celebrate the career of the first Black licensed architect west of the Mississippi. His work helped shape the landscape of Los Angeles and brought good design within reach of all, regardless of race.

Architecture as a subject wasn't necessarily a natural transition for Ireland, whose past work has primarily been portraiture. But after learning about Williams' life, Ireland was drawn to telling his story.

"When I take a portrait of myself, I'm making it for a girl who is like I was and needs to see herself reflected in art," Ireland says. "And the Paul R. Williams work is an extension of that process."

A detail from the home Williams designed and built in 1952 for himself and his wife, Della, in the Lafayette Square neighborhood of Los Angeles. Before 1948, Black people were restricted from living in this neighborhood. The all-white area transformed quickly into a diverse neighborhood after racially restrictive covenants were deemed unenforceable.
Janna Ireland

Williams was prolific and his repertoire is vast in both style and quantity, creating some 3,000 buildings before his death in 1980. He's often remembered as an "architect to the stars," creating opulent mansions for the likes of Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra.

But he also helped design iconic public and commercial buildings: the modern Los Angeles County Mosk Courthouse, the historic Spanish-colonial style YMCA building in downtown LA, and even parts of Los Angeles International Airport.

In 1923, he became the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects — one of many "firsts" in his long career.

The back of a home in LaFayette Square designed by Williams and built in 1954 for Mrs. Pearl and Mr. J.P. Taylor, whose granddaughter Lauran Smith lives there now. Smith suspects that her grandparents asked their lighter-skin friend, who could have passed for white, to purchase the land on their behalf before racially restrictive covenants were deemed unenforceable.
Janna Ireland
Even today, the Taylor home retains almost all of the original details from 1954. Smith, granddaughter of the original owners, says she plans to live in the home for the rest of her life.
Janna Ireland

After he established himself, Ireland says, Williams chose projects that would uplift the Black community. He designed everything from banks and churches in predominantly Black neighborhoods, to affordable housing for Black veterans returning from World War II. Ireland says he believed that "good design wasn't just for the rich," that it was for everyone, regardless of race or class.

Ireland first learned about Williams' work about four years ago, when LA architect Barbara Bestor asked Ireland to photograph a handful of Williams' projects.

And as she researched his life, Ireland says she discovered parallels with her own experiences as a Black artist.

This four-sided spire stands beside the Guardian Angel Cathedral on the Las Vegas Strip. Designed by Williams in the early 1960s, both structures were built in 1963 to serve casino employees who lived and worked in the area.
Janna Ireland
A house in LA's View Park neighborhood. Architect Claude Coyne designed this home for Paul R. Williams and Associates. Built in 1962, this is the first home Janna Ireland photographed for her book, only to learn later that it wasn't actually designed by Williams.
Janna Ireland

Born in 1894, Paul R. Williams knew at a young age that he wanted to be an architect. But when Williams shared his dreams with a white teacher, he was told that Black people would never be able to afford him and white people would never hire him.

Nearly a century later, in another classroom, Ireland sat dreaming about being a photographer. But when she told a teacher — also white — that she hoped to attend New York University to study photography, he told her that it "wasn't a place for people from humble beginnings."

"I thought a lot about what he meant in the years since," Ireland says, "and whether he meant that it wasn't a place for me because I'm Black."

His comments affected her deeply; she became depressed and nearly didn't apply.

The Al Jolson Shrine at Hillside Memorial Park — a memorial and burial place for the Jewish community — in Culver City, Calif. Jolson, a prominent performer in the early 20th century, was famous for acting in blackface. Ireland notes the irony of having Williams design Jolson's shrine, but says when it was built in 1951, blackface was considered acceptable.
Janna Ireland
Within the mausoleum at Hillside Memorial Park, Williams created many intimate nooks with benches and green spaces to allow for peaceful reflection.
Janna Ireland

But eventually, she earned her dream degree from NYU — and, later, an MFA from UCLA.

As she researched Williams, Ireland learned of the other ways race had an impact on his career: how he learned to draw upside-down so that his clients, often white, would not have to sit beside him, and how that for much of his career, Williams designed homes in neighborhoods he couldn't live in himself because of racially restrictive covenants tied to property deeds across swaths of Los Angeles at the time.

Ireland says she thought a lot about the "indignity" Williams had to endure throughout his life. "These stories made me angry on his behalf," she says.

Fueled by that anger and a desire to shine a light on just how deep Williams' influence has been, Ireland continued to photograph his work, culminating in the new book.

It's not an encyclopedic guide to Williams' designs, Ireland says, but her interpretation of his work.

Homes from the Carver Manor section of Willowbrook, Calif. A Black real estate agent named Velma Grant acquired the land for these 250 tract homes and hired Williams to design them for Black veterans returning from World War II. Instead of creating "cookie-cutter" homes, Williams gave each dwelling different features.
Janna Ireland
This futuristic, Googie-style building designed by Williams was once the lobby of La Concha Motel in Las Vegas. In 2005, the motel was demolished, but the lobby was relocated and preserved by The Neon Museum in Las Vegas.
Janna Ireland

Ireland says she hopes that her desire to capture "relationships between people and relationships between a subject and the camera"is visible in the way she chose to photograph Williams' buildings.

"Most architectural photography is about giving an overview of how a space is supposed to function, but it doesn't give you insight into the small details," Ireland says. "When I talk about intimacy in relation to the Paul R. Williams work, it's about these close-ups you would see walking around a space."

For instance, many of Ireland's photographs of Williams' work feature curving lines at the edge of a ceiling or of a shadow falling on the corner of a church building.

While Williams is known for his use of curves to create intimate environments or elaborate stairwells to make a space feel grand — perhaps what's most notable about his work is that he wasn't tied to a particular "signature" style.

Instead, he met the needs of a range of clients, from those commissioning mansions to those who sought affordable housing — all while maintaining high standards of quality design. Ireland hypothesizes that Williams' versatility was borne out of necessity because he had to be more dexterous than white contemporaries.

The swimming pool and diving board in the backyard of a home built for comedian Leon Errol in 1940 in LA's Toluca Lake neighborhood. The next owner was actor William Holden, who hosted the wedding reception for Ronald and Nancy Reagan there in 1952. Denzel Washington eventually lived in this home, though he has since relocated.
Janna Ireland
The variety of home exteriors designed by Williams in the Los Angeles area demonstrate the wide range of architectural styles he employed. Williams designed nearly 3,000 structures in his lifetime, about 2,000 of which are in LA alone.
Janna Ireland

Ireland says Regarding Paul R. Williams isn't the end of her quest to get to know the architect she says is "criminally under recognized and underappreciated."

An archive of Williams' drawings and notes, thought to be lost to a fire 28 years ago, was recently rediscovered and will be available to the public. That, Ireland says, will open up new doors. She says she plans to continue taking photos of Williams' buildings, but doesn't know exactly what form the future work will take.

"I feel as though the part of the project that's in the book is finished," she says, "and maybe it's time to start another chapter."

: 9/16/20

In a previous audio version of this story, we incorrectly said that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that racially restrictive covenants were unconstitutional. In fact, the Supreme Court ruled that enforcement of racially restrictive covenants by courts was unconstitutional.

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For a time, Williams' granddaughter lived in the home he designed for himself and his wife, Della, in LaFayette Square.
Janna Ireland

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Spend the day driving around Los Angeles, and you might pass by the county courthouse or the historic Spanish colonial-style YMCA building south of downtown. Or maybe you're driving down the 405, and you see this stately white mausoleum in the middle of Hillside Memorial Park, where I met photographer Janna Ireland.

JANNA IRELAND: We're in the Rotunda of Adoration, which is the first structure that you see when you're looking at the building from far away.

CHANG: We have a pretty open view of the 405 freeway from here. We're perched on a hilltop.

As different as these buildings I mentioned are, they are all designed by the same architect.

IRELAND: A lot of people haven't heard of Paul R. Williams, and that's something that I hope that my work plays at least a tiny part in changing.

CHANG: For the last four years, Ireland has been working on a book of photographs called "Regarding Paul R. Williams." Williams was the first certified Black architect west of the Mississippi. He's famously known as the architect to the stars because he designed the homes of white celebrities like Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra. But Ireland writes that one of the most defining characteristics of Williams as an architect was his dexterity. He designed thousands of structures in LA - not just mansions for the rich and famous but also city buildings, churches, banks, tract homes and public housing projects. And as Ireland learned more about his story, she felt a growing personal connection to him.

IRELAND: When I began reading about what he had to do to become successful and to maintain his success, I was sort of angry on his behalf.

CHANG: What do you mean?

IRELAND: Well, there's this story about how he learned how to draw upside down so that white clients who were uncomfortable wouldn't have to sit next to him or that he walked around construction sites with his hands behind his back so that no one would feel pressured to shake his hand if they didn't want to. And I thought a lot about the indignity of that.

CHANG: When Williams was in school, he dreamed of becoming an architect. But his white teacher discouraged him, telling him white people would never hire him and Black people could never afford him. A similar conversation unfolded decades later in a classroom in Philadelphia, where a teenage Ireland dreamed of attending NYU to study photography. She shared those plans with her teacher, who was also white.

IRELAND: And he said that it wasn't a place for people from humble beginnings, and I've thought a lot about whether he meant that it wasn't a place for me because I'm Black. But it was something that almost affected the rest of my life. I almost didn't apply.

CHANG: But her mom pushed her to apply anyway, and she went on to earn a photography degree at NYU. Today Black identity is a major theme she explores.

IRELAND: In my work, though I'm happy when all different kinds of people appreciate it, I feel as though I'm making it for Black people. I feel as though when I take a portrait of myself, I'm making it for a girl who is like I was and needs to see herself reflected in art. And the Paul Williams work feels like an extension of that process for me.

CHANG: Ireland writes there's a great irony underlying much of Williams' work. You see, a vast number of the homes Williams designed stood in neighborhoods he wasn't even allowed to live in because racially restrictive covenants were attached to property deeds. They banned nonwhites from living in much of LA. In fact, when Black service members returned to Los Angeles after the Second World War, there wasn't enough affordable housing for them. And Paul Williams helped change that.

I love all these trees that line this whole street. It's like a tunnel. What kind of trees are these?

IRELAND: I believe that they're willow trees and that the neighborhood itself, Willowbrook, was named after these trees.

CHANG: Oh, I love that.

A Black real estate agent named Velma Grant anticipated that many Black veterans would have trouble finding places to live, so she bought up land here in South L.A. for tract housing and hired Williams to design the homes.

Every house is different. They're - it's not a cookie-cutter street.

IRELAND: Yeah. I think that's the stereotype - that you drive into a neighborhood of tract homes and you never find the house you're looking for or find your way out again.

CHANG: Yeah.

IRELAND: But here, each house has its own personality.

CHANG: Paul Williams adamantly believed good design wasn't just for the wealthy. It was for everyone despite race or class. So he gave each home here in Carver Manor a unique look - some with slanted roofs, some with bay windows, some with stucco facades. But everyone had a well-manicured lawn.

I mean, as we've been talking about Paul R. Williams today, I'm struck that he made grand homes for movie stars but he also designed streets like this full of single-family homes for middle-class people. What do you think that reach tells us about Williams?

IRELAND: I think it tells us that to him, there was no project too small or no project too big. He could design something like a public housing project, which serves a part of society that maybe other architects wouldn't have been interested in.

CHANG: In 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive covenants were unconstitutional. That decision allowed Black families to move into parts of LA that had previously shut them out. One of those neighborhoods was Lafayette Square west of downtown.

I love all the palm trees around here.

IRELAND: Isn't it great?

CHANG: Different heights and varieties...

IRELAND: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Of palm trees...

IRELAND: Yeah.

CHANG: That caught my eye right away.

It's a quiet patch of stately houses. Cypress trees and palm trees loom over wide sidewalks and expansive lawns.

LAUREN SMITH: Lafayette Square is like an urban oasis to me.

CHANG: That's Lauren Smith. Her grandparents had asked Paul R. Williams to design a home for them here, and now Smith lives in that house. It's a contemporary two-story home with clean lines and a long stone pathway cutting through a neatly trimmed lawn. Smith's grandmother was an activist in the Black community, and her grandfather was a physician.

SMITH: Acquiring land as a brown-skinned Black man, no matter if he was a doctor or not or was qualified or not to get a loan or anything else, was not as easy - right? - and sometimes unheard of.

CHANG: But her grandparents were able to purchase a plot of land with the help of a family friend. And in 1954 Smith's grandparents, Pearl and J.P. Taylor, moved in. That's when the phone calls to Dr. Taylor began.

SMITH: My grandmother actually recounted that he received calls from people that warned him that Black people were moving in. Now, they hadn't met him, so, of course, they just called and said, Dr. Taylor, you should be aware. You know, be careful because Negroes are moving into the area.

CHANG: Wow.

SMITH: And he said, is that so, and went on about his business.

CHANG: The house has been in their family ever since, and the architect, Paul R. Williams, eventually designed his own home right around the corner. Smith says seeing successful Black families move into beautiful homes like this all around Lafayette Square - that was such an important part of what Paul Williams left behind for generations of Black people in LA.

SMITH: I feel like I'm part of a revolution. You have highly educated, very proud Black people. You know, they left the South. And then you come to Los Angeles, and you realize you still can't live where you want to live most times. So you decide to create your own, and that's what they did. They forged a way out of no way.

CHANG: Janna Ireland, who met Lauren Smith while photographing her house, says that idea - forging a way to elevate the Black community - that idea is visible in all of Paul R. Williams' work, even in the homes he designed for white clients.

IRELAND: There is definitely a subversive element to him designing these spaces that are for white people that will always have been designed by him and planned by him. That means that there is always a degree to which they're Black spaces, too.

CHANG: And that is perhaps the most enduring legacy Paul R. Williams built in Los Angeles.

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