Have others unfairly tried to stop you from becoming successful? If so, I’d like to tell you about a man who overcame overt bigotry to become a famous architect.
If you know 20th century architecture, you know of Paul Williams. But Williams was black and in the early 20th century, blacks were seen by many as sub-human. They were excluded from most top schools and jobs, from being guests in most hotels and restaurants and from living in “white” neighborhoods.
Williams loved to draw and studied art in high school. But when he told his teacher he wanted to be an architect, Williams later recalled, “He stared at me with as much astonishment as he would have had I proposed a rocket flight to Mars,” and told Williams, ‘Who ever heard of a Negro being an architect?’
The teacher explained that black people don’t build fine homes nor grand office buildings and that Williams would be dependent upon white clientele. White people would never hire a black man to design their most costly of possessions.
But Williams refused to give-up his dream. After his high school graduation, he attended the prominent Beaux-Arts Institute of Design for three years and studied architectural engineering at the University of Southern California. Along the way, he began winning architectural awards.
In 1914, Williams was ready to begin his architectural career but with so much prejudice against him, who would hire him? To find out, he used the telephone directory. He made a list of 12-15 architectural firms, put on his best suit, took his portfolio and his positive attitude and walked to each of their offices.
Ultimately he got three job offers. Two offered him $3 a week and the third offered to hire him but at no pay. Which do you think he chose?
You guessed it. Although he desperately needed the money, he picked the third firm because he could learn the most there. And before long, that firm began paying him $3 a week as well.
Over the next several years, Williams worked for two more large firms, and he continued to win architectural awards. Despite rampant racial prejudice, he was recognized as one of the leading young architects of his time.
Then despite seemingly impossible odds, he got his big break. A white ex-high school classmate had done well in business and hired his friend Paul Williams to design his home. In 1922, at the age of 28, Williams had his first client.
Williams then risked everything he owned to start his firm. It was a scary thing to do but a short time later, he got a wonderful surprise as his ex-employer gave him a big residential job with the kind wish, “Let this be a starter for your new office.” He was now on his way.
Over the next 51 years, Williams ran what became a very successful firm and he became one of the world’s best known architects. He designed or helped design such landmarks as the Beverly Hills Hotel and the famous theme restaurant that defines Los Angeles International Airport.
In the Beverly Hills area, Williams designed over 300 projects. They include the home used for exterior scenes in the “Beverly Hillbillies” TV series and nearby, the one used for exterior scenes in movies such as “Rocky V” and “Three Men And A Little Lady” and for TV series’ “Dynasty” and “Murder She Wrote” among others.
His clients included Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and many other Hollywood stars and notable businesspeople. His more than 3,000 projects include the United Nations building in Paris and other high end projects in Columbia, Mexico and elsewhere in the U.S.
But Williams also remained close to his roots and in Los Angeles’ black community, he designed churches, office buildings, youth centers and affordable homes.
But equally important, he was on the Board of a financial institution he helped organize in 1946, to ensure that black people could obtain loans, at a time when few “white” institutions would loan to them.
At its peak, Williams’ racially integrated firm employed 57 people and offered equal opportunity employment many years before that became mandatory under the law. Yet despite his success, he was not allowed to live in most of the upscale neighborhoods which contained his homes.
In his personal life, Williams was orphaned when he was just four years old and was raised by foster parents. As a result, family was very important to him. When he married Della Mae Givens in 1917, whom he’d met at Christian Endeavor, a social organization for young black people, he became a devoted family man.
The couple raised two daughters and when he’d travel, even for a day, he’d always bring gifts to his wife and children, and later to his grandchildren too. He did this for the rest of his 85 year life. When he passed away, he and Della had been happily married for 63 years.
Success Tip of the Week: Like Paul Williams, if you have a dream, ignore the skepticism of others and commit yourself to it. You may take the world by storm or you may fail in that effort but you’ll have a fascinating journey and learn valuable lessons in the process.
Editor’s Note: Thank you to Karen Hudson, Paul Williams’ granddaughter and keeper of his archives for her assistance in preparing this article. If you would like to see a compilation of Paul Williams’ beautiful architectural work, and learn more about his remarkable life, I recommend her book, “Paul R. Williams, Architect: a legacy of style.”
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