Since the recent opening of the Neon Museum, which features the restored La Concha lobby as its own, the late Paul Revere Williams has been relaunched into Las Vegas’ spotlight. Williams, a well-known and respected African American architect, was best known for designing high-end hotels and homes for the stars in Southern California, though he took on projects elsewhere, most notably Reno and Las Vegas.
In Las Vegas, Williams is recognized for the La Concha, as well as the Guardian Angels Church, an eye-catching A-frame cathedral located on Las Vegas Boulevard near the Desert Inn underpass. Lesser known are his residential works around town — modest, single-family ranch-style homes built for Las Vegas’ African American community in the 1950s.
“He had a very strong sense of helping African Americans,” says architect and historian Alan Hess.
Williams is thought to have worked on a couple of neighborhoods in the valley.
One, Berkley Square, was inducted into the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. Berkley Square was named after Thomas L. Berkley, an African American attorney and newspaper owner from Oakland, California. The square, located in West Las Vegas, was touted as the first neighborhood to be built for Las Vegas’ African American community. Las Vegas’ first black doctor and dentist lived there, alongside others who were living with indoor plumbing for the first time, says city historian Courtney Mooney. Well-to-do residents might own two houses, the second they used for rooming guests and out-of-town entertainers. Mooney says residents have memories of women in fur coats arriving in fancy cars.
There is some uncertainty about Williams’ involvement in Berkley Square, but Mooney says it’s a “good faith” leap that he was the architect. In the mid-1940s, when the housing was advertised, it was called Westside Park and Williams was touted as the architect. However, after the initial ads appeared, the property changed hands and adopted the Berkley name. Gone were the mentions of Williams, although the small rectangular homes with single carports appeared to be the same as the earlier advertised designs.
Another neighborhood Williams might have worked on is Basic Townsite, the small neighborhood of inexpensive homes surrounding downtown Henderson. He may have also worked on Carver Park, another Henderson area, which no longer exists.
The styles look similar to Berkley Square, and were also built primarily for African Americans. Mooney says she has spoken to Williams’ granddaughter who has researched and written about her grandfather, though she does not recall him working in Henderson, although she says it’s possible he did because many files were lost in a fire. Similarly, files were lost when the basement at City Hall flooded.
Other large-scale projects lack documentation, Mooney says, such as Guardian Angels Church and the futuristic Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport. Mooney says its possible Williams was added to the photograph of the architects for racial reasons, and says just because she hasn’t seen documentation does not mean it doesn’t exist.
Still, Mooney emphasizes the importance of Berkely Square, which has a higher owner-occupancy rate than other parts of the city. Parents bought homes for their children, who now live in them. The area is rich with history and pride for Las Vegas’ first African American community.
“There’s a really strong sense of community there,” Mooney says. A lasting sense of community.”