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A Forgotten Black Architect Who Designed Mansions for Movie Stars

July 23, 1989|RUTH RYON | Times Staff Writer

The granddaughter of the late Los Angeles architect Paul Williams, who designed dozens of movie-star mansions and other buildings, is on a mission:

"I am trying to have him remembered," said Karen Hudson, 38, whose maternal grandfather was the first black member of the American Institute of Architects.

"There never was a book about him, and he is often not mentioned in books about Los Angeles architecture," said Hudson, who is trying to gather as much information as possible for a book she plans to write next year.

"When he died, I promised my grandmother (Della Williams) that I would have everything together for a book on him in 10 years, and it will be 10 years in January," she said.

Hudson wants to hear from anyone who lives in or owns a house designed by her grandfather, especially from the late 1920s to the mid-'40s.

"That's my favorite period for his designs," she said, and referring to his papers, she added: "Much from that time was lost after he put it into storage, to cut down the size of his office, during the war. That's why this is such a treasure hunt for me."

Hudson can be reached at her office in the 4501 S. Broadway branch of Broadway Federal Savings, whose founders included Williams and Hudson's paternal grandfather, the late H. Claude Hudson, who was known as "Mr. NAACP" for his role in establishing the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

Her paternal grandfather's death in January made her realize that time is running out for her to interview original owners of Williams-designed mansions.

"I'm sorry I never talked to Lucille Ball or Cary Grant," she said, referring to two of the more famous former owners, both now dead. She also wants to talk to such current owners as actors Don Johnson and Tom Selleck.

Personal Records

Besides interviews, she will draw on a 10-by-14-foot roomful of Williams' personal records, photographs, correspondence and renderings. There are about a dozen three-drawer file cabinets in the room at Broadway Federal and in her grandmother's garage that are packed with memorabilia, and there are also many tubes of rolled-up house plans and several architectural file drawers with stacked renderings.

"Some renderings (are) so old that when you touch them, they disintegrate," she said.

Hudson bemoans the fact that some Williams-designed buildings have been demolished.

"But there are a lot left, mainly because Paul Williams courted the rich," said architectural historian Robert Winter, who teaches at Occidental College in Eagle Rock. "When I was on the Cultural Heritage Commission, it was amazing how many things came up for monument status that he designed.

"Paul Williams stands on his own, not because he was black, but because he was a very fine architect."

Important Houses

Said Jeffrey Hyland, a Beverly Hills realtor who co-authored "The Estates of Beverly Hills:"

"Paul Williams was probably responsible for more important houses than any other single architect. The list of people he did houses for reads like a Who's Who of Hollywood."

A few on the list are Tyrone Power, Frank Sinatra, Fanny Brice, Danny Thomas, Lon Chaney, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

"I could name houses he designed on almost every street in Beverly Hills," added Hyland, who is helping Hudson put together a list of the houses Williams designed--"so there will never be any question about whether he designed a house or not."

As it is now, Hudson explained, "realtors often say a house was designed by him when it was a copy." The value of a house may be enhanced by the fact that Williams was the architect, Hyland said.

Designed 1,000 Mansions

Williams' practice extended from 1915, when he was only 19, until he retired in 1973. At the height of his career he had offices in Los Angeles, Washington and Bogota, Colombia.

During his career, Williams designed about 1,000 mansions, including 400 in Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Holmby Hills, Brentwood and Westwood, Hudson estimated. He designed houses in such faraway places as Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but he did most of his jobs in the Los Angeles area, including Hancock Park, Malibu, Pasadena, Palm Springs and Lafayette Square, where he lived most of his life.

As a youth, Williams, a native Angeleno and an orphan from age 4, sold newspapers to U.S. Sen. Frank Putnam Flint. When he grew up, Williams designed many homes in Flintridge, the city named for the Republican senator.

Williams attended Polytechnic High School, then in downtown Los Angeles. "He always loved art and architecture," Hudson said, "but a high school teacher told him that black people did not become architects because black people couldn't afford to hire architects." That may have been when Williams decided to design houses for the rich, she speculated.

Studied on Scholarship

Williams studied architecture on a scholarship at USC. Before graduating, he got his first big commission: It was to design a Beverly Hills home, since razed and replaced by nine houses, for E. L. Cord, creator of the classic Cord car.

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