Paul Williams designed the Palm Springs residence of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. (J. Paul Getty Trust)

Paul Williams, the Los Angeles architect who could draw upside down

Paul Williams, the trailblazing Black architect, was born in Los Angeles on Feb. 18, 1894. Orphaned young, he was raised by a family friend who marveled at the boy’s intelligence, telling him he could do anything. When he announced his ambition to become an architect, however, there was skepticism.

Black people won’t be able to afford you, a high school teacher warned, and white people won’t hire you. The doubters lit a fire in him, Williams later wrote. “It was this challenge that decided my future.”

Early in his career, Williams was sometimes denied work because of his race. He adapted by mastering the skill of drawing upside down so he could sit across from white clients who were uncomfortable sitting next to an African American. When touring construction sites, he clasped his hands behind his back to spare white people the discomfort of shaking his hand.

Paul Williams at his desk in 1969.
California State Library

In a 1986 essay for Ebony magazine, Williams recalled how he won his first contract for a home costing more than $100,000. The prospective client, a car manufacturer, was in a hurry. He asked Williams how quickly he could draft preliminary plans.

“‘By four o’clock tomorrow,’ I answered.

“‘Why that’s impossible!’ he cried. ‘Every other architect has asked for two to three weeks!’ He regarded me shrewdly for a moment. ‘Go ahead,’ he said.”

Williams delivered at the scheduled hour. What he didn’t mention was that he had worked through the night, 22 hours straight, without food or sleep.

A view of Williams’ addition to the Beverly Hills Hotel.
J. Paul Getty Trust

As demand for architects grew in the 1940s and 1950s, fueled by the rapid growth of Los Angeles, so did William’s reputation for works of unusual care and grace. He designed everything: celebrity mansions, housing projects, schools, hospitals, and nearly 2,000 homes in Los Angeles alone.

By the end of his career, Williams was a wealthy man and the look of Los Angeles bore his unmistakable imprint. “Like the movies,” wrote the architect Max Bond in 1997, “his work helped define a California style of self-assured, easy worldliness.”

Williams’ death in 1980 passed without the attention it deserved in the press. But four decades later, his career has been undergoing something of a rediscovery. In 2017, he was posthumously awarded the AIA Gold Medal, one of architecture’s highest honors, putting him in the company of Frank Lloyd Wright, Julia Morgan, Louis I. Kahn, and other giants of the trade.

Williams was not just a great Black architect, he was simply one of the finest of the 20th century. In contrast to his white peers, however, Williams did the job while shouldering the burden of racial prejudice — and while drawing upside down.

This article is from the California Sun, a newsletter that delivers must-read stories to your inbox each morning .  Sign up here.

Get your daily dose of the Golden State.