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Paul R. Williams gets the star treatment in new PBS documentary

Hollywood thrills

Paul R. Williams gets the star treatment in new PBS documentary

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport by Pereira & Luckman Architects in collaboration with Paul R. Williams and Welton Becket. (EditorASC/Wikimedia Commons)

The career of Paul Revere Williams was defined by glitz, glam, and a remarkable triumph over adversity that helped pave the way for countless architects to follow. Now, Williams and his work will at long last celebrated in a new feature-length documentary film, Hollywood’s Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story, co-produced by PBS SoCal and released in time for Black History Month.

Born in Los Angeles in 1894, Williams blazed previously impassible trails as both the first certified African American architect to practice west of the Mississippi, as well as the first African American architect to be admitted as a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Williams, whose wildly prolific career spanned over 50 years, is perhaps even more famous for his seemingly endless output of buildings across a range of styles and types: Office buildings, churches, schools, hotels, restaurants, public housing projects, municipal buildings, and enough private homes for Hollywood luminaries—Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Cary Grant, and Tyrone Power among them—to fill Beachwood Canyon.

And while Williams is best-known work is predominately located in and around L.A., other notable Williams-designed buildings can be found further afield. They include the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee; the La Concha Motel, now part of the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, and the landmark Hotel Nutibara in Medellín, Colombia. Williams’ collaboration on the Googie-style showstopper at Los Angeles International Airport, the 1961 Theme Building, appears to be directly imported from even further afield… a place called outer space. The Theme Building is not only one of Williams’ most well-known projects but an iconic structure in L.A. for both its location and prominent superstructure.

Debuting earlier this month on PBS SoCal, the Courtney B. Vance-narrated documentary, which also includes interviews with Williams’ grandchildren, friends, and architectural historians, can now be viewed on PBS channels nationwide and streamed online here.