A Multifaceted Legacy
“Williams is not just an important architect. He is not just an important architect of that era. He is really one of the most important American architects,” says Stephen Gee, one of the authors of the Williams volume. Frankly, it’s difficult to grasp the full scope of Williams’s impact because every facet of his story is so rich, it’s easy to get sidetracked. “His improbable rise to prominence is so profound that it eclipses other details of what made him important,” says Gee.
Janna Ireland, an award-winning photographer who has published her own book on Williams, echoes Gee, “talking about him as ‘Hollywood’s Architect’ obscures so much of the other work that he was doing. He was working through so many different eras, for people who were low-income or middle-class, and participated in different municipal projects.”
Williams’s story has become so focused on who he designed for (the likes of Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra) and the color of his skin that his artistry and attention to detail become somewhat overlooked. This volume refocuses his talent, allowing the reader to follow along as Williams develops his imitable design.
Creating the California Style
The time frame of the book, 1920 to 1940, concerns when California was developing its identity. Post–Gold Rush, between two world wars, giving birth to Hollywood and in the midst of the Great Migration; the state was molding its modern personality and morphing from rural and expansive farmland into homesteads, metropolises, and industries. For a man with great imagination and adaptive skill sets, this created a playground. According to Gee, “Williams existed as an architect in a time when people were experimenting and trying to figure out what a California style is. What is a California structure supposed to look like?” To turn the pages of this book is to take a trip, chronologically, through the evolution of Los Angeles and building techniques—steered by one man. As Ireland says, “When we think about glamour and Los Angeles, we’re thinking about these styles that Paul Williams helped define.”
The demand for so many new and different kinds of structures allowed Williams to demonstrate his multitude of talents and interests. An employee of Williams, Jeh V. Johnson described him as a “master of creative eclecticism.” “I think that’s a wonderful way of describing him. You could literally come to him with anything, any crazy idea, and he would turn it into something architecturally pleasing,” says Gee. This is where the brilliance of Williams shines—he would give his clients what they wanted, but it would be exactly what he wanted as well. He was adamant, Ireland writes in her book, that “he built homes, not houses.”