A Jet magazine article from 1957 noted that architect Paul Revere Williams, the first documented African-American member of the American Institute of Architects, had agreed to a pro bono partnership with entertainer Danny Thomas to build a hospital for "destitute Negroes." After visiting several Southern cities, Memphis was chosen as the location for the hospital, and Williams, who had come to be known as the "architect to the stars" because of his work on the mansions of Tyrone Power, Lucille Ball, and Frank Sinatra, went to work assembling the plans for what would become St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, a facility that would treat all races regardless of a parent's ability to pay.
In 2007, the University of Memphis joined forces with the Memphis chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the National Organization of Minority Architects to create the Paul Revere Williams Project to raise awareness of this prominent designer, who, in spite of his work on Los Angeles International Airport, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the Beverly Hills Hotel, had fallen into near obscurity. He died in 1980, and a 1992 fire destroyed many of his personal records.
The multifaceted project includes a website, a traveling exhibit, and a continuing-education component designed to show K-12 art teachers how to introduce elements of architecture and design into their curriculum, using Williams as an example.
"The number of black architects always has been small relative to the population," says Leslie Luebbers, the director of the Art Museum of the University of Memphis (AMUM). "It's important that minority students see someone like Williams, and we want to give the teachers who work with these students a battery of key tools — [like] vocabulary and lesson plans — to teach architecture and design."
The website is online now, and the exhibit opens in September at AMUM. Continuing-education class gets under way in June. "This is the second time we've offered the class," Luebbers says. "We learned a lot the first time and think this year things will be even more focused and useful."