Las Vegas is known for its castles, circuses and canals—impressive, but not exactly elegant design. However, one of the most sophisticated American architects of the 20th century did ply his trade in Sin City: Paul Revere Williams’ work encompasses the soaring sparkle of the Guardian Angel Cathedral and the cozy mid-century homes of Berkley Square.
Williams’ brilliance lay in his mastery of a variety of traditional architectural styles—Spanish colonial, French chateau, Western rustic, neoclassical—combined with a futuristic vision of monorails, dome houses and some of the wildest examples of Googie ever built. “He made the transition to modern design and developed a very convincing, well-executed modern architecture,” architect and historian Alan Hess says of Williams.
Williams also became the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects in 1923 and the first African-American AIA Fellow in 1957. “He had an extremely successful career regardless of his race at a time when that made a big difference,” Hess says. “He was very dignified, very self-assured, but he was also very aware of the limits that the culture imposed on African-Americans.”
Williams learned to draw and write upside-down so white clients would not have to sit beside him; he kept his hands in his pockets until someone extended theirs first. He designed the Beverly Hills Hotel, Saks Fifth Avenue Beverly Hills and a number of residences for movie stars (including Cary Grant and Lon Chaney Sr.) back when that neighborhood was whites-only.
In Las Vegas, Williams took a different tack, building “Berkley Square and the reasonably priced ranch houses that he developed on the west side,” Hess says. “He worked with African-American investors from Los Angeles to build that. It really shows his commitment to his community.”
Berkley Square was declared a historic district in 2009, but perhaps Williams’ best-known and best-preserved Las Vegas building is the lobby of La Concha Motel, now the visitors’ center for the Neon Museum. Danielle Kelly, the museum’s executive director, says Williams’ design fits right in with the museum’s mission. “It celebrates roadside architecture and interprets the function of a sign as architecture, art and design,” she says. “[La Concha is] a beautifully perverse inversion, a building that … literally embodies the shape of its theme—a giant, undulating conch shell.”
Of course, this being Vegas, not all of Williams’ creations are still standing. The glitzy Royal Nevada Casino and Carver Park (the housing development he designed for African-Americans in Henderson) are long gone, while El Morocco Motel once stood alongside La Concha, but didn’t survive the wrecking ball. Still, as Hess notes, Williams—who died in January 1980, less than a month shy of his 86th birthday—left a lasting imprint on this city. “[Las Vegas] can definitely be proud that he worked [here] and created so many different, interesting monuments,” Hess says. “People like his buildings now as much as they did in the ’40s and ’50s.”
The Neon Museum hosts “Pop-Up Architecture: Paul Revere Williams in Las Vegas,” a family art program, 12:30-2:30 p.m. Feb. 21.