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La Concha

In Las Vegas, pioneering black architect Paul Revere Williams challenged established thinking and challenged himself

African-American architect Paul Revere Williams achieved international success in a profession that had very few black practitioners. Known for his restraint and elegance, he made a name for himself designing Colonial and Tudor-revival Hollywood mansions for well-known celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Desi Arnaz. He also collaborated on a wide range of public and private projects ranging from hotels, restaurants, housing tracts and municipal buildings.

But it was in Las Vegas that he was able to let loose, relatively speaking. Indeed, what’s less known about Paul Revere Williams is that he designed a number of Las Vegas buildings, housing tracts — and even a futuristic monorail that was never built.

Coaster

Williams was born in Los Angeles’ garment district in 1894. His parents died when he was four, and he and his older brother were raised by separate foster families. His childhood was a relatively happy one. Williams has stated that he doesn’t recall experiencing racism until high school, when he expressed a wish to become an architect. He was soundly discouraged by his teachers.

In 1912, Williams graduated from the famed Polytechnic High School in L.A. He then began methodically making the rounds of architectural firms seeking work. He promptly found it, and advanced quickly. He secured a position with a landscape architect, Wilbur D. Cook, Jr. After that, he
 

worked at a number of important Los Angeles architectural firms. At the same time, he enrolled in engineering courses at the University of Southern California.

Williams went to work for architect John C. Austin in 1921 and ended up heading the drafting department with a staff of 20. In 1921 Williams passed the Architecture Licensing Exam and opened his own office, while still working for Austin until 1924. They were later to collaborate on a number of important buildings.

 

 

Early on, Williams set the credo that would direct his life. In his July, 1937 essay in American Magazine, “I Am a Negro,” Williams stated, “If I allow the fact that I am a Negro to checkmate my will to do, now, I will inevitably form the habit of being defeated.”

Williams’ talent was fueled by an extraordinary capacity for work. One of his own anecdotes, frequently related in essays and articles, describes how he prepared a design for automobile magnate E.L. Cord in 24 hours, where other architects had asked for three weeks. He got the job. Williams forged ahead of his competition, even with the challenge of being a black man in a nearly all-white profession, by taking on an enormous number of projects and by doing them faster, better and with more value for the dollar.

Williams’ handful of Las Vegas projects, spanning from the 1940s to the 1960s, provides a telling window into his long international career as an award-winning architect. His completed Las Vegas projects included two housing tracts, a horse race park, a hotel, two motels and the Guardian Angel Cathedral on the Las Vegas Strip.

Williams’ first project in Las Vegas began in what later became the City of Henderson, just south of Las Vegas, when he designed a housing tract for African-American workers at the Basic Magnesium Incorporated (BMI) defense plant. Called Carver Park, the tract provided simple and affordable homes for hundreds of African-American families who had been recruited from the Deep South to work in the factory making lightweight airplane parts. 

[HEAR MORE: Design experts discuss the cultural impact of the neon sign on “KNPR’s State of Nevada.”]

The selection of Williams for the Carver Park project was probably based partly on his having designed one of the first public housing projects in the country, Pueblo del Rio in Los Angeles. He also served from 1933 to 1941 on the Los Angeles Housing Commission, and was appointed in 1933 to the National Board of Municipal Housing.  These experiences served him well when he designed Carver Park, which opened in October 1943.

Williams made good on his concerns for working-class blacks when he signed on as the architect for Berkley Square in West Las Vegas. This project addressed the deplorable living conditions on Las Vegas’ West Side. After the war, hundreds of blacks stayed on and found other work. Lack of housing, however, was a problem. The 1955 Berkley Square subdivision, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, provided a turning point in providing decent housing in West Las Vegas.

By that time, Williams was also involved in designing a small hotel on the Strip, the Royal Nevada, with California architect John Replogle. (He was also the architect, with Arthur Froehlich, for the short-lived Las Vegas Race Track in the early ’50s.) The year the Royal Nevada opened, 1955, was not a good one for new hotels, with the Moulin Rouge opening and closing within several months and the Stardust construction delayed due to the untimely demise of its owner, gambler Tony Cornero, who died at a Desert Inn craps table. In 1958, the Stardust construction was completed and the hotel opened, in the process swallowing up the ill-fated Royal Nevada Hotel for use as the Stardust’s convention center.

Paul Revere Williams

Business as unusual

Williams’ next Las Vegas project would prove to be memorable. In 1959, Los Angeles real estate developer M.K. Doumani purchased a parcel just south of the Riviera with 960 feet of Strip frontage. Doumani and his two sons, Edward and Fred, decided to develop the property themselves. It took two years to secure the financing, hire an architect and build what would become one of the most recognizable and unusual structures on the Strip, the La Concha Motel.

After hiring Paul Revere Williams, Ed Doumani met with him in his Los Angeles office. Doumani described Paul Williams as very well-dressed, wearing a three-piece suit. The Doumanis explained that they wanted something unusual and eye-catching, but left it up to the architect to decide on the direction and the theme.

“I sat across his desk from him while he drew a sketch—backwards and upside down,” Doumani has said. The three flowing arches of the conch shell took shape.

The La Concha has been referred to as Googie architecture, a sub-category of Mid-Century Modern that celebrates pop culture and Space-age design with swooping, exuberant lines. Williams was not known for his Googie-style designs; however, his later work included several more subdued Mid-Century Modern buildings. The La Concha — something of an anomaly for Williams — still shows his characteristic love of curves and graceful, flowing lines.

The La Concha’s engineering is one-of-a-kind, not easily replicable today. The lobby’s exterior structure is a web of reinforced steel in the shape of the shell, covered with concrete. The motel section was a more conventional two-story rectangle of 100 rooms but, with its dramatic façade, the whole complex made a memorable impact on tourists driving from Los Angeles.

The La Concha blended high design and hands-on construction, with the two Doumani sons helping to build the interior block walls. The Doumani family described how, to save money, they shopped at a local hardware store for off-the-shelf dropped light fixtures for the nine bays in the lobby. Yet they spared no expense in other areas. They built a huge, towering neon sign whose base was the distinctive stylized La Concha logo. That sign has been restored and is on display in the Neon Museum Boneyard, where the restored La Concha now serves as the lobby.

Shell game

By the year 2000, with the building boom exploding, the Doumani family planned to build a non-gaming luxury residential hotel on the property. At the same time, they were reluctant to demolish their legacy, the La Concha. They looked for an appropriate steward for their treasured building. (The hotel was never built; ultimately, the family sold the property to another developer.)

The Neon Museum was just then embarking on a major long-term fundraising campaign to build a permanent visitors’ center that would lead into its outdoor display of unrestored signs, known as the Neon Boneyard. The Museum had been operating from a borrowed office, with visitation by appointment only. It needed an on-site visitors’ center to make the signs available to visitors on a full-time basis.

The project was an ideal marriage of history, architecture and artifact. Historic preservationists, especially fans of Mid-Century Modern — locally and from around the country — lent their support for saving the La Concha. Fans of historic Las Vegas neon signs voiced their support from around the world.

In 2005, the Doumani family agreed to donate the building to the Neon Museum. After determining there was no route to transport the 28-foot tall lobby without hitting the freeway overpass, a feasibility study conducted by structural engineer Melvyn Green determined that the building could be successfully … cut apart and put back together?

Yes. Although the project was risky, it was given the go-ahead. Over the next two years the needed funds were raised, primarily from federal, state and local grants. The City of Las Vegas provided land under a long-term lease for the La Concha. The City had previously received federal funding to build an adjacent “Neon Park,” which would provide an attractive and secure block wall fence to encircle the entire Neon Museum campus of park, Boneyard and Visitors’ Center.

In December 2006, while onlookers from the Neon Museum held their breath, the first cut was made into the concrete-covered spider-web of rebar. Fortunately, the building didn’t crumble and the contractor proceeded to slice it into eight pieces. The La Concha Lobby was then moved on flatbed trucks to the site next to the Neon Boneyard. When the Museum, working with the City of Las Vegas, finally obtained enough grant funding, the shell was reassembled in 2008. The final phase of the project broke ground in fall 2011.

Legacy by design

Williams, who died in 1980, completed two more Las Vegas projects, the El Morocco Motel, also for the Doumani family, and the Guardian Angel Cathedral, which still stands on the Strip, before he retired from practice in 1973. Over the course of his 50-year career, he designed thousands of important buildings and contributed to many more. His career had great value, and even more when considering his struggles in that era as a black man in a mostly white field. Williams’ work is now celebrated at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, which has set up a permanent online archive called the Paul R. Williams Project, in partnership with the American Institute for Architects. (www.paulrwilliamsproject.org.)

Ironically, Williams may end up being known for a building that wasn’t the most representative of his lifetime of work. The La Concha Motel was a project that Paul R. Williams must have had some fun with, although he may not have thought of it as one of his more significant. But when millions of people get a chance to see the building restored and functioning as the Neon Museum’s Visitors’ Center, Paul Williams’ name will live on as the man who designed it.  

Dorothy Wright has been active in historic preservation in Las Vegas since the late 1970s. During her 22 years with Clark County’s Cultural Division, she worked on a number of preservation projects, including writing the successful National Register nomination for the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. She is currently the Chair of the City of Las Vegas Historic Preservation Commission, and has been a Neon Museum board member since 2003. She co-authored a recent book published by the Neon Museum, “Spectacular: The History of Las Vegas Neon.”


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