Paul R. Williams in Las Vegas


Dave Cornoyer


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The Other Las Vegas Part Three
Paul Revere Williams in Las Vegas

Legendary midcentury architect Paul Revere Williams had a long-standing involvement with Las Vegas that began in the early 1940s and lasted through the 1960s. Williams, widely regarded as the first African American member of the AIA in 1923, had built a successful Southern California practice designing over 2,000 residences ranging from humble bungalows to sprawling estates for Hollywood’s elite. 

At the height of World War II, Basic Magnesium Incorporated (BMI) built a plant in what would eventually become Henderson, Nevada. Magnesium was in short supply at the time, necessary as a lightweight metal for the construction of airplanes and other materials critical to the war effort. BMI imported a crew of 13,000 workers to the Mojave Desert, 3,000 of whom were African American laborers from Arkansas and Louisiana. Las Vegas was a segregated community during this time period, and to house its Black employees, Williams was called in to design a supply of temporary housing.  

This housing community became known as Carver Park, which consisted of 498 dwelling units in one, two and three bedroom configurations plus a large dormitory. After the war ended, the demand for magnesium fell and Carver Park was no longer needed for temporary housing. Carver park stood on Lake Mead Drive (Parkway) until 1974, when all but one building (the present day Elks Lodge) was demolished. The foundations of the former development could still be seen from Lake Mead Parkway for another 30 years after demolition, until nearly all of them fell into the path of new development. 

Williams undertook a second housing project in Las Vegas in the late 1940s that had significant impact on the town’s African American community. Planning efforts for a community built by and for the Black community in Las Vegas began in 1947, when a group of investors along with the City of Las Vegas petitioned the Federal Housing Administration to develop a 40-acre parcel on the historic Westside which would provide federally insured housing loans to the home buyers.. 

Originally known as Westside Park, Williams designed two, two-bedroom homes in 1949. Construction didn’t take place until 1954 when the community was officially recorded as Berkley Square, named after primary project financier Thomas Berkley, a distinguished attorney, media owner, developer, and civil rights advocate from Oakland. The 148-home community filled a void in Las Vegas, and was soon occupied by several prominent African American families, including doctors, casino workers, retail employees and civil rights advocates. Berkley Square was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. Many of the homes have remained in the hands of the original family owners.  

In 1953, Williams’ Las Vegas work reached a new level of prominence with the opening of Las Vegas Park on Paradise Road, just south of the city limits. Envisioned as a premiere racetrack, the excitement of horse racing never quite took off in Las Vegas as it was unable to compete with slot machines, table games and lavish resorts. After a series of false starts, the land was eventually sold to investor Joe W. Brown and in 1967 it became the site of Kurt Kerkorian’s International Hotel (Westgate) and the exclusive Las Vegas Country Club. 

Williams won another large commission in 1955, this time on the famous Las Vegas strip. Williams teamed up with California architect John Replogle in the design of the Royal Nevada Hotel.  The modest hotel opened adjacent to the Stardust, with a lavish dancing water fountain show, but like several other casinos that opened in 1955 (Dunes, Riviera and Moulin Rouge), it faltered and found itself in bankruptcy within months of opening. Unable to completely recover, the Royal Nevada was absorbed into the Stardust in 1959. 

1961 was one of the more compelling years for Williams-designed structures on the Las Vegas strip. He completed the La Concha Motel, a 100-room, modest structure with an eye-grabbing intersecting hyperbolic paraboloid lobby of glass and concrete. It operated on Las Vegas boulevard across from the Circus Circus for over 40 years. Faced with rising operating expenses and assessments from the County due to its frontage on the famous strip, the owners shuttered the motel and sold the land during the early 2000s real estate boom for an unmaterialized hotel/condominium development. The motel wings were demolished, but Williams’ iconic lobby was utilized as a sales office for the failed development. In 2005, the Neon Museum was looking for a new home, and set their sights on preserving the lobby as a new visitor center. In 2006 funding was secured for the complex task of disassembling the building and transporting it three miles north to its present location at Las Vegas Boulevard and McWilliams Street. The distinctive structure is now the welcoming point for hundreds of visitors per day to one of the most popular museums in southern Nevada. 

The second iconic Las Vegas design to be produced by Williams in the early 1960s was St. Viator’s Guardian Angel Shrine. In an effort to clean up his public image associated with crime syndicates, Moe Dalitz of United Resort Hotels donated land and funding for construction of a new Catholic Church. St. Viator had attempted to build a church several years earlier on the site of the old city dump, but lost their building due to unstable land. Eager to leave the strip mall they were operating out of, the Church graciously accepted the gift from Dalitz in 1961, and Williams was brought in to design the structure. 

Opened in 1963, the A-frame structure provides seating for 1100 and features a large, colorful mosaic over the entrance by Los Angeles artist Edith Piczek. Stained glass windows by Isabel Piczek and donated by prominent Las Vegas families were installed in the twelve triangular recesses bisecting the A-frame. While most images are typical of church design, one window has been dedicated to the great city of Las Vegas, with images of entertainers and the midcentury Las Vegas skyline preserved. Today referred to simply as the Guardian Angel Cathedral, the church underwent a $1.5M renovation in 1995 and remains a popular destination for architectural tourism. 

About the Author

Dave Cornoyer is a 20-year Las Vegas resident, graduate of UNLV’s Landscape Architecture program, former city planner, midcentury and history enthusiast, and is the Forward Planning Manager of Lennar Las Vegas.  

The Other Las Vegasis part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series, which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country without leaving your home. Previous spotlights include Chicago, MississippiMidland, Michigan, and Houston. Have a region you'd like to see highlighted? Submit an article.

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The Other Las Vegas Part Four
A Paradise Worth Waiting For