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Home of Paul Revere Williams could become cultural monument

Architect Paul Williams (in a photo thought to be from the 1940s or ’50s) developed the ability to sketch buildings upside down to accommodate white clients who might not want to sit next to him.

The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission this week unanimously voted to take under consideration for the Historic-Cultural Monument List the 30-year home of master architect Paul Revere Williams, who designed more than 3,000 buildings during his nearly six-decade career and was the first African-American architect to be a member and fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

The home, located at 1271 W. 35th St. in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, is for sale for $1.6 million and advertised as a “Student Housing Development opportunity … just blocks to the University of Southern California.’’

L.A. Conservancy submitted the application requesting that the California Craftsman style house, where Williams lived from 1921 to 1951, be added as a Historic-Cultural Monument, saying that it “illustrates a part of Paul RevereWilliams’ life and story that is rarely told or fully understood.’’ Adrian Scott Fine of L.A. Conservancy told commissioners Thursday that the group’s hope is to attract a preservation-minded buyer instead of a developer.

The Cultural Heritage Commission received nearly 200 letters regarding the designation, and several people called in to support the nomination during the meeting on Thursday. One person called in to oppose the property’s nomination, instead recommending that pieces of the home be donated to a museum.

Commissioner Gail Kennard responded saying that the location is more part of the story than the physical house, given that Williams, who designed homes for celebrities in white neighborhoods, had to live in Jefferson Park, one of the few areas in Los Angeles where Black people were allowed to buy homes.

“It’s part of the story of why he had to live there—restrictive covenants—the  location is all wrapped up in that. He did not design that home, he lived in that home. The story is that he designed a lot of other homes that other people could live in that he couldn’t live in. So it’s very important the we preserve this cultural history,’’ Kennard said.

Williams designed homes for Frank Sinatra, Danny Thomas, Lon Chaney, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. He also designed Historic-Cultural Monuments including the Bruce and Lula Blackburn Residence, the Victor Rossetti Residence, the Angelus Funeral Home, the May Co. store at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue (now the Motion Picture Academy Museum), the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building in Los Angeles, the Castera Residence, Oakridge and Grounds, the T.R. Craig Residence, the Hunt Residence, the Hannah Schwartz Apartments and more.

During the Cultural Heritage Commission meeting, L.A. Conservancy’s Teresa Grimes shared a quote by Williams from 1937 in which he said:

“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.’’

In 2017, Williams was posthumously awarded the American Institute of Architects’ highest honor, the AIA Gold Medal, which is given to architects whose work has a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture.

Will Wright, director of government and public affairs for AIA’s Los Angeles chapter, called into the meeting on behalf of the chapter to voice its support for the designation.

Grimes said that 1921 was a particularly interesting year for Williams. He passed California’s licensing exam for architects and obtained a job that allowed him to work on major commercial and institutional buildings—including the Hollywood Masonic Temple.