Commissioned by a veritable backlot of movie stars, business magnates, and Hollywood power players, the thousands of private homes designed by the prominent Southern California architect Paul Revere Williams can be found peppered throughout the most expensive zip codes and exclusive neighborhoods in and around Los Angeles. However, the home of Williams himself, where he lived alongside his wife Della Mae Givens and a growing family beginning in 1921, was far humbler than the residences that helped catapult the L.A. native to mid-20th century architectural stardom.
Now, with the recent blessing of the Los Angeles City Council, that modest Craftsman-style bungalow at 1271 West 35th Street in South L.A.’s Jefferson Park neighborhood is the city’s newest designated Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM).
While Williams’ professional successes could have easily afforded him a family home comparable to the ones commissioned by his celebrity clients, he, as a Black architect, settled in Jefferson Park (the neighborhood is located with a larger district contemporarily known as Historic West Adams) due to the strict racial covenants that blanketed large parts of L.A. at the time. Those covenants did not exist in Jefferson Park, and, as a result, a sizable Black community thrived there.
As Williams wrote in the 1937 essay “I Am a Negro:”
“Today I sketched the preliminary plans for a large country house which will be erected in one of the most beautiful residential districts in the world. Sometimes I have dreamed of living there. I could afford such a home. But this evening, I returned to my own small, inexpensive home… in a comparatively undesirable section of Los Angeles. I must always live in that locality, or in another like it, because…I am a Negro.”
The excerpt from that essay has been shared by the nonprofit Los Angeles Conservancy, which spearheaded the campaign to landmark Williams’ first home in Jefferson Park as an HCM. As the Conservancy explained, the home “illustrates a part of Paul Revere Williams’ life and story that is rarely told or fully understood. In telling the full story about people and places, it is important to preserve this house as a physical reminder of what Williams achieved and his extraordinary career in architecture.” Until recently, the home was up for sale and threatened by potential redevelopment.
“So it may be that we’re working to save and protect places that look pretty ordinary or modest-looking,” relayed the Conservancy’s Adrian Scott Fine to LAist. “But they have extraordinary stories in which they can tell, and that’s really important in understanding the full history of the places in which we live.”
The push to landmark 1271 West 35th Street formally kicked off in September 2021 when the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission (CHC) voted unanimously to take the Conservancy’s pending nomination submission under consideration. Just over two months later, the CHC voted to recommend the Paul Revere Williams House Historic-Cultural Monument to the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee.
Things moved along slowly and just earlier this month, the PLUM Committee threw its support behind the pending nomination. Shepherded by Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, the nomination then moved to the full City Council. On February 16, council members voted unanimously in support of the nomination’s passage. And, with that, the first home owned by a pioneering Black architect who helped to shaped L.A.’s modern cityscape was designated as a Historic-Cultural Monument.
Williams and his family lived in the now-landmarked Jefferson Park home for three decades. In 1951, 14 years after he penned “I Am a Negro,” Williams and his family moved from West 35th Street to a home of his own design in a L.A. neighborhood of his own choosing, the semi-gated Mid City neighborhood of LaFayette Square. That International-style residence at 1690 South Victoria Avenue, where Williams lived until his death in 1980, was designated as the city’s 170th HCM in 1976. It hit the market for the first time in 2017 for $2.4 million.
As previously noted by AN, while HCM designation won’t provide the Jefferson Park home with immunity from potential redevelopment and demolition down the line, it would allow preservationists to delay demolition by 180 days—and up to 360—so that an alternate resolution may be found.
Named as the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects in 1923 and later its first Black fellow (he was posthumously awarded the AIA Gold Medal in 2017), Williams designed many other notable buildings— churches, schools, hotels, restaurants, public housing projects, municipal buildings, and more—in a number of styles across Southern California in addition to his residential commissions during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Although smaller in number, he also designed a handful of buildings outside of L.A. and environs including the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, the La Concha Motel, now part of the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, and the landmark Hotel Nutibara in Medellín, Colombia.
Williams’ expansive portfolio also extends to the modernist desert mecca of Palm Springs. His work there, including the iconic Palm Springs Tennis Club designed in collaboration with A. Quincy Jones, as well as his larger impact as a trailblazing Black architect will be discussed in the three-part forthcoming symposium, Stories Untold: Black Modernists in Southern California, being held today, February 21, as part of the city’s annual Modernism Week festivities.