Las Vegas does not have a great track record for historical preservation on the Strip. It's not uncommon to see buildings torn down or imploded to make way for something new. But two of the most distinctive structures from five decades ago are still standing--though one of them has been moved. The Guardian Angel Cathedral and the La Concha Motel--which now serves as the Neon Museum lobby--were perhaps the culmination of a career for architect Paul Revere Williams.
"So by the time he designed those buildings in the early 60s, his catalog included just about every type of style you could think of," says Dr. Leslie Luebbers, Director of the Paul Revere Williams Project at the University of Memphis.
She says that Williams broke a color barrier in the field, becoming the first African-American to be honored as a Fellow with the American Institute of Architects.
"He had to be sponsored in the architecture community in Los Angeles to become a member of the Southern California chapter of AIA. And then at that point he could be sponsored for national membership. So that had to be a process that came through his peers."
Williams was a Southern California resident his entire life, a period during which growth was so rapid that architects were in great demand.
"When he was born, there were 100-thousand people in greater Los Angeles. When he died, there were 11 million," observes Luebbers. "So you can calculate, there were a lot of buildings that had to be built in that period. And he practiced for sixty years."
Williams became know as an architect to the stars, creating houses for Lon Chaney, Sr., Lucille Ball & Desi Arnez, Zazu Pitts and others, while also designing public buildings, housing developments, hotels, restaurants, memorials.
"It's hard to typify his design style," notes Luebbers. "So he got a lot of jobs by referral. And he was very, very good at leveraging the clients he did have, to develop new clients. He was a genius of a businessman., That did not hurt him."
In Las Vegas, we still see the majestic angular A-frame of his Guardian Angel Cathedral just north of the Encore. While down the street on Las Vegas Boulevard North by Cashman Field, sweeping curves...perhaps reminiscent of his LAX Theme Building.
"That is something that carries through his work form the earliest to latest," says Luebbers. "But not in as overt a way as La Concha."
While Williams' highest profile projects were on the Strip, perhaps his most important contribution to Southern Nevada was residential, bringing a new quality of housing to African-American families. First in Henderson's Carver Park, then a development at the intersection of Owens and F Street--in the middle of an area that at the time was home of almost all the black population of Las Vegas.
"This neighborhood, Berkley Square started out as Westside Park in 1949," explains Courtney Mooney. "And he was in the newspaper as being a very prolific African American architect at that time in 1949."
Mooney is a Preservationist with the City of Las Vegas Planning Department, and notes that Berkley Square represented a breakthrough, "Because it was the first of its kind in the area. For some people it was the first home that they had actual indoor plumbing. So it was very important to the Civil Rights movement."
Williams had already built modular housing at the Henderson town site for families of workers at the Basic Magnesium factory. But his Berkley Square project definitely kicked it up a notch, becoming the first FHA housing in Southern Nevada that was not discriminatory, according to Mooney.
"We have old advertisements for neighborhoods like the Mayfair neighborhood which is Charleston and 15th-ish that expressly said no African-Americans, only whites allowed," notes Mooney.
"These were designed in the late 40s." She gestures toward houses along Leonard Avenue. "And we weren't seeing houses here that were considered Contemporary Ranch until five or six years later on the east side of Las Vegas. So these were ahead of their time when they were built."
"But he wasn't a housing reformer," points out Luebbers. "I think he relished the opportunity to do those things. But most of his work was for white clientele. There's no question about that."
Most of Williams' legacy remains in Southern California. But some of his most exciting work is in Southern Nevada.
"I just want to emphasize that I think he loved designing there," says Luebbers, referring to Las Vegas. "Because it was so liberating. It was probably the most, the freest he ever was in a design. And I think he just had a ball doing it."
He was even involved with a futuristic transportation system called "Skylift Magi-Cab". A type of suspended monorail proposed by Lockheed and Guerdon in 1966.
"They invited him because he was so well known as a designer," ventures Luebbers. "And a designer who was very careful about intricate detail. He designed down to the very last millimeter. And that's what they wanted. They wanted something that was really elegant...fun. But it didn't happen."
Paul Revere Williams passed away in 1980 at age 85. His legacy had been secured long before that.
"For somebody who is African-American to make the kind of impact he did in a profession that was almost exclusively white is pretty remarkable," concludes Luebbers. "He remains the most successful--I'm sorry to say, in some respects--African-American architect of all time, so far."