African-American architect Paul Revere Williams gets AIA's top honor

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Whenever you go to LAX, at the center of the horseshoe, that clogged road that runs past every terminal, is a building that you just know. It's part spider and part spaceship, and it's every bit a part of the airport as anything else there.

The iconic theme building was designed by a team of architects that included a man named Paul Revere Williams.

Williams, who was African-American, was one of LA's foremost architects of the 20th century, and later this week, he'll posthumously receive a prestigious award at the American Institute of Architects' national convention.

Aside from the LAX Theme building, he's known for designing the LA County Courthouse, the First AME Church, Saks Fifth Avenue, Palm Springs Tennis Club, Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building and renovations to the Beverly Hills Hotel.

He also designed private residences for many celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, actor Bert Lehr, comedians Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and many others.

In the course of his five-decade career, Williams designed thousands of buildings. He also served on many municipal, state and federal commissions, and was active in political and social organizations. He retired from practice in 1973 and died in 1980 at the age of 85.

Gabrielle Bullock, head of global diversity at the firm of Perkins+Will, told DnA, "Paul Williams represents what could be accomplished at a time when it was so unlikely that an African-American architect could be so successful while dealing with the challenges of the racial obstacles at the time... and a role model for future African-Americans and all architects of color."

Williams overcome those racial obstacles through sheer determination.

He was orphaned at an early age and was raised by foster parents who believed in education. He attended Los Angeles public schools and graduated from Polytechnic High in 1912. He took classes at USC while working as a draftsman in established Los Angeles architectural firms, designing commercial buildings. He was licensed as an architect by the State of California in 1921. Williams opened his own practice and become the first African American member of the AIA in 1923.

In his essay "I Am A Negro," Williams wrote of the "power of example," especially by African Americans who were educated. He believed that "individual-by-individual" his race would begin "to cast off its inertia and glimpse the way to a brighter future."

But he still had to address the racism of his time. One story is that he learned to draw upside down, so he could sit across from his clients and still draw for them without needing to sit next to them. He also would stand with his hands behind his back so they wouldn't feel like they have to shake his hand.

There's a big anniversary this week: the 25th anniversary of the LA Riots. One footnote to that civil unrest is that during the turmoil, protesters set fire to the headquarters of Broadway Federal Savings in Watts, destroying almost everything inside, including most of the professional papers and letters of Paul Revere Williams.

Photo: The Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (John Zacherle)