At its annual convention this weekend in Orlando, Fla., the American Institute of Architects will give a posthumous Gold Medal, its highest honor, to the Los Angeles architect Paul Revere Williams. Williams, who died at 85 in 1980, is the first African American architect to win the award.
But it's a second, bleaker milestone this weekend that suggests the complexity of Williams' legacy and the range of obstacles that for many decades have kept his work from gaining wide recognition outside California. Sunday will mark the 25th anniversary of the day the Broadway Federal Savings & Loan at South Broadway and 45th Street went up in flames during the violent protests and rioting that followed the 1992 verdict in the Rodney King beating. The fire not only destroyed the bank but a large chunk of Williams' archive.
Many of the architect's papers, including a significant trove of drawings and letters, wound up being kept at the bank after his death because Williams had been on its board and friendly with its founder, H. Claude Hudson. (One of Williams' two daughters married a son of Hudson's, cementing the connection between the families; Karen E. Hudson, the most important chronicler of the architect’s work, is the granddaughter of both men.) Williams also redesigned the Broadway Federal building itself, in 1955. The 1992 fire, in other words, claimed one of his landmarks in addition to all those drawings.
That the Gold Medal ceremony and the anniversary of the bank blaze are overlapping on the calendar seems a sadly appropriate twist of fate for Williams, a hugely prolific architect and famously sharp dresser who charmed much of the Hollywood elite and worked across an eclectic range of historical styles (along with occasional forays into various strains of modernism).
Battling the sort of prejudice that not only shaped his roster of clients but was entrenched in the built landscape of the city itself — whites-only covenants meant that he was banned from living in many of the neighborhoods where his most impressive houses went up — Williams never had the luxury of thinking of architecture and race as separate. His career was one long negotiation between the two, an extended investigation of the ways that in 20th century Los Angeles they were thoroughly and often cruelly intertwined.