Despite the fame architect Paul Revere Williams achieved during his career, little information remains about his life and work. A scant few publications, including some of Williams' own writings, are all that make up the easily accessible body of knowledge since the destruction of his office records from fire during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Credit: Courtesy University of Memphis and Photographer, David Horan, 2010
A view of the lakeside elevation of the Chautauqua, N.Y., Ritts/Kohl residence, designed by Williams in the 1950s (exact dates of design and construction were among the information lost in the fire that destroyed many of Williams' office documents).
Born in 1894 in Los Angeles, Williams (who died in 1980) became one of the most successful architects of the 20th century, surmounting racial barriers and earning the title of "architect to the stars." His work is said to have defined the Hollywood aesthetic of the mid-1900s. He was the first documented African-American member of the American Institute of Architects and the first to achieve fellowship. Licensed in several jurisdictions around the United States, Williams also practiced in Colombia, South America, Mexico, Europe, and Africa.
Now, the scattered remnants of information about Williams are being pulled together into a central repository through a project launched earlier this year. The Paul Revere Williams Project is a multifaceted collaboration of the AIA Memphis, the Art Museum of the University of Memphis (AMUM), the Memphis chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects, the University of Memphis Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, and the university's departments of art and architecture. Intended to expand public knowledge about Williams' career through a variety of channels, the project is accumulating existing and new research about him, including new images of his work, all of which is being published at the project's website on an ongoing basis. The partnership is committed to the project through 2015.
While the work will all be accessible online, the project partners also have created a physical component that makes use of the many new images and information generated. This fall and winter, the AMUM is hosting an exhibition of Williams' architectural work. The exhibition opened Oct. 23 and runs through Jan. 8, 2011. According to Leslie Luebbers, AMUM's director, this is the first full-scale exhibition about Williams to be mounted in the United States, owing primarily to the previous lack of information and materials about his work.
"I also think one of the reasons he was ignored was because in the late 20th century most architectural history was focused on classic modernism, and he didn't fall into that category," Luebbers adds. "He was one of many architects who simply were not considered to be doing the work that most architectural historians would want to concern themselves with. But that's turning around now. I think the time is right for architects like Williams to be paid attention for the work they did."
Paul Revere Williams, American Architect explores Williams' unique role and place in American history as an architect of African-American descent, as well as the scope and characteristics of his work and his ongoing legacy. Along with some extant photos and drawings, the exhibition mostly is built around the project's 200 new photographs of Williams' buildings, as well as video sequences and interviews. An interactive timeline allows visitors to view specific projects in the context of the social, cultural, and political characteristics of their times. Showcasing much of his residential work, the exhibition is organized into three parts that present three stages of Williams' life: his youth, education, mentors, and opening of his first practice; his early practice; and his rising professional importance within the national and international spheres and impact on American cultural life until his retirement and death.
Paul Revere Williams, American Architect eventually may be developed into a traveling exhibition, Luebbers notes.