Pasadena had a significant role in the development of Williams’ impressive career.
By Brian Biery
Neighborhood zoning designations and architectural design have long been points of contention for Pasadena’s residents. Questions about density, setbacks, height limits, design features, compatibility with the existing neighborhood, appropriate use of property, and many others, arise when a new development is proposed throughout the city.
In 1914 an “unsightly shack” was built by the property owner on one of the corners of a major intersection, in one of Pasadena’s expanding residential districts. The purpose of this edifice was to house a fruit vendor. Soon afterwards, on an adjacent corner, another substandard building was erected to serve as a neighborhood grocery store. Neighbors of these two structures organized and then petitioned City government to save the remaining two corners from a similar fate.
One outcome of this neighborhood organizing effort was the creation of an architectural design contest, called the “Four Corners Competition”. Coordinated by Throop College of Technology (later to be named Caltech), the committee of judges included architects John C. Austin, Elmer Grey, and Albert R. Walker, all from Los Angeles. The challenge before the competitors was to visualize an improved design for the ‘four corners’ by sparking the “…artistic arrangement of these, the smallest units in the great city plan.” (From ‘The California Outlook’ magazine, Nov. 14, 1914; page 15.)
Competitors were also requested to present their entries in a clear graphic form, which enabled judges and community members alike to imagine the actual construction of the plan’s elements, and to understand its benefits to the neighborhood. In addition, the competition was “blind” and did not ask for the race, gender, cultural background, etc. of the applicants on their submissions.
In an era of often painful race relations, it was fortunate for the winner of the competition that the contest was “blind.” Paul Revere Williams, a 20 year old African American college student from Los Angeles, won the contest. A unique aspect of his winning design was that it emphasized the value of a mixed-use intersection. One that situated apartments adjacent to retail shops so that residents could easily walk to buy groceries and supplies. In addition, his plan included spaces for playgrounds and gardens near the apartment building, with the placement of a church, fire station, and community house at each of the other corners. He stated that the “…possibilities of cooperation in religion and recreation which might well be considered in every neighborhood,” to highlight the intentional relationships developed between the corners of the intersection.
Williams was awarded $200 for his first-place victory and overnight became a well-regarded structural designer and architect. It was a career-changing decision to enter the ‘Four Corners Competition’ for Williams, as he drew the attention of one of the respected judges, architect John C. Austin. Austin was so impressed with Williams’ creativity and understanding of public design concepts that he subsequently offered him a position at his downtown architectural firm. There Williams went on to contribute to the designs of numerous important public and institutional buildings throughout the city.
Paul R. Williams designed over 3,000 structures in his career
As a high school student Williams was told by a school counselor that “…very few Negroes build important buildings, and that he would never get a job in a White architect’s office.” Nevertheless, Williams opened his own architectural firm after passing California’s licensing examination in 1922. Over the course of nearly 60 years, he designed over 3,000 structures, including the LAX Theme Building, LA County Courthouse, Hillside Memorial Park, Beverly Hills Hotel, Perino’s Restaurant, among many others, including numerous private homes in Pasadena and La Canada/Flintridge. On May 14, 1923 he became the first African American member (and later, Fellow) of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). And in a field where even today only 2% of the total membership of the AIA is African American, Williams’ achievements both architecturally and socially, are extraordinary.
It is valuable to reflect on Pasadena’s subtle role in the development of his impressive career and to appreciate his significant contributions to the city, particularly in light of the challenges that he faced personally and professionally. Williams recalled later in life that “I was turned away by would-be employers who, to my certain knowledge, needed help. At first I could not understand, but gradually I came to realize that I was being condemned, not by a lack of ability, but by my own color. I passed through successive stage of bewilderment, inarticulate protest, resentment, and finally reconciliation to the status of my race.” (Paul R. Williams, Master Architects of Southern California 1920-1940, page 21).
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