Mystery of a ‘Neglected Gem’

Rare modern home by trailblazing architect Paul Williams sits on shelf in Inland Empire
Fridays on the Homefront
It's a mystery why this rare modernist home by the trailblazing African-American architect Paul R. Williams has languished for sale in Southern California. "It's hard to say why…," says the listing agent of this 1948 design, which remains an overlooked prize. Photos: courtesy deasy/penner
Fridays on the Homefront
Fridays on the Homefront
Architect's preliminary sketch of the Williams home.
Fridays on the Homefront
Architect Paul R. Williams.

While much of the nation spent the mid-century struggling with what position in society to 'allow' minorities, many of the highest profile structures of that period in Los Angeles were being designed by Paul Revere Williams.

Today, a rare modernist home by the trailblazing African-American is languishing in nearby San Bernardino County, failing to find a buyer in three months priced at $1.099 million.

"It's one of the few International style properties that he designed," notes realtor Matthew Berkley, listing agent of the house for deasy/penner, adding, "probably the only one in the whole Inland Empire that follows that vernacular."

Berkley has a masters in architectural history and the L.A.-based realty firm specializes in architectural properties, so the agent is well aware of what a prize they have in the first-ever public listing of 205 East Sixth Street in Ontario. In fact, the firm closed escrow recently on the sale of Williams' personal residence in the Hancock Park area.

"It's hard to say why we're having trouble getting the right buyer," the realtor said of the 1948 house, which was listed in early January but has no offers so far. "I think more than anything, it's getting people to understand the importance of the property."

To wit, a little background is helpful. Williams was an orphan who in 1921 became the first African-American certified architect east of the Mississippi and two years later the first anywhere to be accepted into the American Institute of Architects. He served on the Los Angeles Planning Commission starting in 1920 to start a five-decade career in which he later had a hand in designing the county courthouse and hall of administration, the Shrine Auditorium, the Googie-style Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport, and more than 2,000 private homes, including several for stars in the Hollywood Hills.

Although one of his employers was Eichler architect A. Quincy Jones for several projects in Palm Springs, he was not strictly a modernist. In fact, the hallmark of his career may have been a talent for working in varied styles. Berkley points to his design of the Ontario Post Office, commenting, "That's his typical Spanish Colonial Revival [design]."