February is Black History Month, and in this segment of “Time & Place”, historian Alicia Barber discusses a groundbreaking African American architect from California whose contributions crossed the border into Nevada more than seventy years ago.
In the world of American architecture, Paul Revere Williams was one of the luminaries, a professional who not only broke the color barrier but designed thousands of buildings over the course of five decades. In 1943, he was attending the dedication of Carver Park, a federal housing project he had designed in what would become Henderson, Nev. The community’s recreation director at the time was Lubertha Johnson, who would become one of Nevada’s Civil Rights pioneers.
In a 1987 interview, Johnson describes their first conversation:
“After the dedication, when I met Mr. Williams, we talked quite a bit, and it always gets around to talking about race discrimination, because he talked about his education and about his experiences with being discouraged to study architecture.”
It wasn’t that Williams’ teachers and counselors didn’t believe in him, but they worried about the uphill battle he would face in a profession where most of his colleagues and clients would be white. Born in Los Angeles in 1894, Williams was the only African American student in his grade school. And by high school, architecture had become his passion.
“People had tried to get him taking up some other subjects so that he would be more likely to get employment,” Johnson said. “But he overcame these negative attitudes and ideas, and he was accepted, of course, especially after a number of years.”
Williams was not only accepted, he excelled. He studied architectural engineering at the University of Southern California, was licensed as an architect in 1921, and opened his own practice soon after that. He became the first black member of the American Institute of Architects in 1923. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Williams famously developed an ability to sketch upside down so that white clients who were uncomfortable sitting beside a black man could sit across from him instead. As his practice grew, Williams designed office buildings, schools, and courthouses as well as grand private residences throughout Beverly Hills and Southern California.
“In fact, you know, he designed for some of the more wealthy people and people who wanted to build outstanding and unusual buildings, and he got to be quite famous,” Johnson said.
In 1934, a wealthy widow from Pasadena named Luella Garvey hired Williams to design her new home on Reno’s fashionable California Avenue. At her urging, the members of the First Church of Christ, Scientist then hired him to design their new church on Riverside Drive, an elegant building now known as the Lear Theater. But Williams was interested in affordable housing, too. In addition to government projects like Carver Park, he was the consulting architect behind the El Reno Apartments, prefabricated steel structures that once stood on South Virginia Street and are now scattered throughout the city.
In 2017, the American Institute of Architects posthumously awarded Williams their Gold Medal, the highest annual honor in the field.
To Johnson, he was as gracious and kind as he was accomplished: “I just thought he was a grand person.”
More information about historic Reno buildings designed by Paul Revere Williams can be found at RenoHistorical.org. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.