Architect Paul Williams



Courtesy St. Jude

Dear Vance: Is it true that Danny Thomas hired a little-known African-American architect from Memphis to design St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital?
M.F., Memphis

Dear M.F.: Well, it’s certainly true that Paul Williams was an African American, but that “from Memphis” part isn’t a certainty. And “little known”? Oh, that’s absolutely wrong. In fact, Williams was one of the most famous architects of his day. 

Maybe I’d better explain all this, in my typically charming and long-winded manner.

If you don’t already know the amazing story of entertainer Danny Thomas’ desire to build a brand-new hospital dedicated to curing childhood cancers, then: 1) you almost certainly don’t live in Memphis, and 2) you need to read the stories about St. Jude elsewhere in this magazine. 

But on these pages let’s focus on the architect who created the place.

According to some sources, Paul Williams was indeed born here. But the biography Paul R. Williams: A Legacy of Style, published in 1993 with the assistance and support of Williams’ family, says his father was from Memphis. It seems Chester Williams worked as a waiter at the first Peabody Hotel before moving his family westward to Los Angeles, where Paul was born in 1894. At the age of 4, the book says he was orphaned, but the circumstances behind that aren’t clear, and so I don’t know who actually raised him.

At any rate, he managed to study art and architecture at Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles, but he wasn’t exactly encouraged to pursue a career in that field. As he told reporters years later, when he mentioned to an instructor that he hoped to be an architect, the man “stared at me with as much astonishment as if I had proposed a rocket trip to Mars. After all, who had ever heard of a Negro being an architect?”

Nevertheless, Williams continued his studies at the University of Southern California and attended three different art schools in Los Angeles. During this time, at the age of 20, his design for a civic center in Pasadena earned him a first-prize award of $200, and he slowly began to obtain commissions on his own. He obtained a position with a small architecture firm, and gradually moved on to larger and more prestigious ones. That “trip to Mars” wasn’t so absurd after all.

Williams began to develop a special talent for residential design, and after several successful (and high-paying) commissions, he opened his own office in Los Angeles in 1922. The next year he became the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects. After that, the work just flowed in. Williams designed palatial estates for auto magnate E.L. Cord, along with mansions for Lon Chaney, Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, and dozens of other Hollywood stars.

A Legacy of Style observes that “Williams enjoyed the advantages of a career that brought him a close association with giants of industry, prominent politicians, and some of the most exciting people in the blossoming entertainment industry.”

Even as his career and reputation grew, though, he encountered racial barriers that he learned to overcome. For example, in these pre-Civil Rights days, he taught himself to draw and write upside down, so he could better present and revise renderings to his white clients, who felt more comfortable sitting across the desk from him, instead of standing or sitting alongside an African American.

Even so, it’s safe to say that Williams became one of America’s first “starchitects” — the acclaimed “architect to the stars” of Hollywood. But though he designed some 2,000 homes, his portfolio included such instantly recognizable civic landmarks as the Los Angeles Airport, the Ambassador Hotel, the Los Angeles County Courthouse, as well as hospitals, churches, schools, office buildings — even car dealerships. His firm grew and prospered; by the 1950s, more than 50 people worked in his office, and he designed government buildings in Mexico and Colombia.

In an essay titled “The Influence of Planning on Man’s Destiny,” he summed up his basic design principals in this way: “Planning is thinking beforehand how something is to be made or done, and mixing imagination with the product — which in a broad sense makes us all planners. The only difference is that some people get a license to get paid for thinking, and the rest of us just contribute our good thoughts to our fellow man.”

Aerial view of St. Jude as it looked in 1962. Photo Courtesy St. Jude.

Williams soon got the chance to contribute his “good thoughts.” It’s not recorded just how and when he met Danny Thomas, and that’s a shame, but what is certain is that Williams immediately embraced his famous client’s enthusiasm for this project. According to his biography, “Williams shared his love for children and donated his services for the first building.” 

Williams laid out the new hospital in a very futuristic design, as a central hub with five spokes. He later expressed surprise when he learned that the symbol of St. Jude was a star. “Some people call this a nice coincidence,” Thomas said when he saw the design. “I call it the hand of God pushing Williams’ pencil.”

The St. Jude project was one of Williams’ last public commissions. He retired a few years later, and died in 1980 at the age of 85. In A Legacy of Style, his life and work are summed up in this way: “From orphan to the guest of presidents, Paul Williams remained a courtly gentleman who never raised his voice. Impeccably dressed, and with a twinkle in his eye, he was a man of vision whose love of beauty brought joy to all.”

Madison Heights Memories

Dear Vance: Going through my parents’ old letters, it seems they were married in Madison Heights Methodist Church. Can you tell me where that was located? — J.P., Memphis

Dear J.P.: The name is slowly fading from memory, it seems, but Madison Heights was once a nice middle-class neighborhood that developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s around Madison Avenue, running several blocks east of the present-day Medical Center. I presume the “Heights” part of the name came from the gentle slope in that area — barely noticeable if you’re driving today, but quite a hill to get over back in the old horse-and-buggy days. 

Its most prominent landmark was the red-brick Madison Heights School that stood at the southwest corner of Court and McNeil. Though most of the building was torn down decades ago, the decrepit two-story auditorium remained standing for years and was used by the park commission and even the police department as a training facility, if I remember correctly.

Madison Heights Methodist Church in 1914

But I digress. My pal Lee Askew has a wonderful old book, published in 1914, called The Art Work of Memphis, and sure enough it contains a fine old image of Madison Heights Methodist Church, shown below. It’s certainly a handsome building, apparently constructed of rough limestone, with a nice rose window and an impressive bell tower.  Constructed sometime around 1898 — that’s the first time it’s listed in old city directories — the church stood on the northeast corner of Monroe and Claybrook. The first minister was the Rev. Oliver H. Duggins, in case you were wondering. 

The National Church Fire Registry shows that Madison Heights Methodist Church burned to the ground on April 14, 1997, from “undetermined causes.”

The church served a large congregation for more than half a century, and was the scene of many community events, such as your parents’ wedding, J.P. But the members gradually moved away and by the 1980s the building was abandoned. According to my pal Joe Lowry, who knows anything and everything about the fire department, the National Church Fire Registry shows that Madison Heights Methodist Church burned to the ground on April 14, 1997, from “undetermined causes.” There’s no trace of it today except for a grassy lot bordered by trees. Next door, the Ruth Hyde Memorial Chapel has survived — in recent years serving as home to various urban ministries — but it’s vacant and for sale, so its future is uncertain.

If you ever turn up photos showing your parents’ wedding at Madison Heights, you’d better hold onto them, J.P. Those pictures and memories are all that’s left of this fine old church. 

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