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Master Class

At USC, a Homage to Paul Williams

March 07, 2004|LESLEE KOMAIKO

When it comes to appreciating the architectural legacy of Paul Revere Williams, Los Angeles has barely started to break ground. The first African American fellow of the American Institute of Architects designed, redesigned or partnered on thousands of structures in the Los Angeles area, including such landmarks as the Theme Building at LAX, the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Shrine Auditorium, Chasen's and Perino's restaurants, the Ambassador Hotel, the former MCA complex, the First AME Church, Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills and the Los Angeles County Courthouse.

"Williams the Conqueror: The Legacy of Architect Paul Revere Williams," (at USC's Helen Topping Architecture & Fine Arts Library through March 15, then at Newman Recital Hall in Hancock Auditorium through April 30) doesn't tread new territory. The presentation is instead an overview meant "to show how multifaceted this man was," says Dr. Lura Ball, director of the Black Alumni Assn. at the university, where Williams studied and co-founded an architectural engineering program.

Karen E. Hudson, Williams' granddaughter, author of two books on his work and the main source of the show's material, says the show is particularly timely because several celebrated buildings in which Williams had a part are threatened. Hudson cites Perino's, which is being torn down to make way for luxury apartments; the Ambassador, which is being considered as a public school site; and the Morris Landau residence in Holmby Hills, which could vanish to make way for expanded facilities at Harvard-Westlake School. Monument status is pending for the building, "But I expect it will be torn down because the school owns it," says Hudson. "This is not one I expect will go well."

Much of the show consists of small-scale photos of Williams with his family, at the drafting table and on job sites. A shot of Williams and several colleagues at the base of the still-skeletal Theme Building is a standout. There also are views of Williams' designs, from Colonial-style mansions to a mod Culver City Volkswagen dealership circa 1961. "Paul loved the outdoors and gardens, all the different areas we have from the mountains to the beach," says Ball. "He had a way of giving people what they wanted, but preserving the look and feel of Southern California." There are concept drawings for sites such as the Anaheim Convention Center; copies of blueprint and documents such as a letter from President Dwight D. Eisenhower requesting Williams' participation in a housing advisory committee.

Another, on Richard Neutra's letterhead, recommends Williams for the American Institute of Architects fellowship; he was the group's first black member. "He left his mark on Los Angeles," says Hudson. "Everywhere you turn, from churches to courthouses to schools to YMCAs to banks, the vision that was Paul Williams is still part of our city."

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