Janna Ireland’s photographic exploration of Paul Revere Williams’ work is powerful in its intimacy
A quote by architect Paul Revere Williams looms over a current exhibit at the Nevada State Museum: “Today I sketched the preliminary plans for a large country house which will be erected in one of the most beautiful residential districts in the world, a district of roomy estates, entrancing vistas, and stately mansions. Sometimes I have dreamed of living there. I could afford such a home.
“But this evening, leaving my office, I returned to my own small, inexpensive home in an unrestricted, comparatively undesirable section of Los Angeles. Dreams cannot alter facts; I know that, for the preservation of my own happiness, I must always live in that locality, or in another like it, because … I am a negro.”
The exhibit is Janna Ireland on the Architectural Legacy of Paul Revere Williams in Nevada. In it, photographer Janna Ireland explores Williams’ work in the state. Following its four-month run at the Nevada Museum of Art, the show took up residence in Las Vegas, where it will be through the end of May. This statewide exhibition sheds light on the life and work of the architectural giant.
“As another Black person, reading about some of the things that he had to go through is super difficult,” Ireland says. “And sort of trying to imagine myself in the same circumstances and thinking about how I would behave and whether I would have had the tact that he had to have to build these relationships with people, and just all the things that he had to put up with, was sort of difficult to think about. … I felt a personal connection to some parts of the story, and I also felt some gratitude for him, for others to come before me for going through the things that they went through, which in the end made my life.”
Williams’ work is a cornerstone in the bridge of Black architectural history, with creations as iconic as the Beverly Hills Hotel and as unassuming as a low-slung home in Las Vegas’ historic Beverly Green neighborhood. Williams' accommodating style and welcoming interiors gained him the nickname “architect to the stars,” with residences for celebrities such as Lon Chaney and Frank Sinatra in his portfolio. But he grew far beyond Hollywood, creating notable structures across the U.S. By the end of his life, Williams had produced more than 3,000 buildings, many of which he couldn't access before the abolition of Jim Crow laws. He became the first Black member and fellow of the American Institute of Architects, designed housing for middle- and lower-income communities of color, and paved the way for future generations of Black architects to develop their careers.
Williams' notoriety — and in some ways creativity — were hampered by the racial politics of his era. Though he produced structures with many distinctive elements, his body of work was subject to the stylistic whims of his clientele. Walking through Ireland’s exhibit, one can only imagine what Williams would have accomplished with wings un-clipped by racial subjugation. Would he have been recognized alongside architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, and Frank Gehry as definitive examples of architectural excellence? Or, to state this inversely, imagine what Frank Lloyd Wright's career would have been if, like Williams, he’d had to fight for clients and institutions to recognize his humanity, let alone genius.
Ireland says she began shooting for the project six years ago, following an email from Barbara Bestor, an architect and executive director of the Julius Shulman Institute in Los Angeles. “Barbara thought that it was time for somebody to do some work about Paul Williams and got my name from my former professor James Welling. And that's how the project began,” Ireland says.
Nevada Museum of Art Associate Curator and Outreach Director Carmen Beals expanded Ireland's project through Nevada. During a short presentation in grad school, Beals says, she learned about the African American architect who did the Guardian Angel Cathedral and La Concha Motel, and became mesmerized by his work. “When I found Janna Ireland, I loved that she developed the work in black and white, to take away the distractions of color so you could just focus on these beautiful, innovative designs,” Beals says.
The Nevada Museum of Art awarded Ireland the Peter E. Pool Research Fellowship so she could focus on Williams’ Nevada work and create never-before-seen images for this traveling exhibition.
Ireland displays exceptional photographic skill, using her eye as an extension of her intuition. These are not simple photographs captured for the sake of documentation, but lyrical interpretations that engage Williams' work at its fullest. Ireland's eloquent vision gives a refined perspective on the way in which Williams made spaces simultaneously extravagant and comforting. Each image thoughtfully emphasizes structure and form. Luxuriating in the grandeur of the overall construction, while caressing the finer details with a lithe intimacy, Ireland acts as a master conductor interpreting Williams' genius composition. In her work, we share the experience of the space, as it would be engaged by a visitor or occupant.
“The whole body of work is so diverse,” Ireland says. “Coming to Nevada, one thing that I noticed was … the use of materials that kind of spoke to the landscape, or felt authentic to the landscape, to the culture in that place at that time. So, lots of knotty pine, and other materials and structures that dealt with the area as a place.”
An essay by historian Claytee White, a looping documentary produced by PBS Reno, and a display of structures that have been demolished or altered round out the exhibition, underlining the depth of Williams' mark on the Silver State. The Neon Museum, which has preserved La Concha’s lobby, has also partnered with the Nevada Museum of Art to offer educational events during the exhibit’s run.
In recent years, Williams has had a global renaissance. Recognition and celebration of a master who lived with dreams deferred is cold compensation, but compensation nonetheless. What is architecture if not the housing of life, the place from which all one's entanglements branch? Janna Ireland on the Architectural Legacy of Paul Revere Williams in Nevada is a necessary experience for anyone who calls this place home and seeks to understand in our collective history and future.
On February 17 at the Nevada State Museum, there will be a symposium on Williams’ work including Ireland and White in addition to museum curator Brooke Hodge and historian Alicia Barber.