Architect to the Stars Awarded Gold Medal

The Board of Directors of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) recently voted to posthumously award the 2017 AIA Gold Medal to Paul Revere Williams. Working through five decades, Williams developed a portfolio of nearly 3,000 buildings located mostly in Southern California as well as the Ritts/Kohl house at 76 North Lake Drive in Chautauqua, New York.

Born in Los Angeles in 1894, Paul Williams is the first African-American architect to receive the AIA Gold Medal.  And winning the 2017 Gold Medal is not the only AIA honor for him. Williams was also the first African-American architect admitted to the AIA (1923) and the first African-American Fellow recognized by the AIA (1957).

While Chautauqua Institution is often described as a Victorian village, its significant architectural legacy dates from a pre-Victorian era. Vernacular versions of small Carpenter Gothic, Federal, and French Second Empire were early styles popular on the grounds in the 1870-80’s. As Chautauqua grew in popularity and the new century approached, the Institution’s homes began to reflect the American Foursquare and other architectural influences and technologies promoted during world fairs. After WW II, newer sections of Chautauqua were developed with a suburban style of architecture which reflects the cultural desire of the post-war prosperity of America in the 1950’s.

In 1949, Tulsa banker Leonard Chase Ritts commissioned architect Paul Revere Williams to design his family summer home in the recently opened north end of the grounds.  It was his wife, Gladys Ritts, who knew of Mr. Williams’ reputation as the “Architect to the Stars” and they went to see him in Beverly Hills.

Williams designed a 1 ½ story cinder block house with large open rooms, an entry way that looks down a curved staircase to the angled living room below, multiple outdoor patios, and sweeping lake views that demonstrate the home’s “California Pedigree”.

The Ritts hired local Chautauqua County contractor Fay Flanders and his son Bill to build the 5,430 square foot home which was completed in October of 1950 for $82,000.  Flanders selected the blocks made from anthracite coal cinders from the Finger Lakes Region of central New York because they did not contain iron fragments that would rust and show through the exterior paint.

For this property, Williams designed an interesting series of hipped roofs enhancing the appearance of the house as viewed from the street level above. The home is noteworthy for its blend of original features and stunning contemporary renovations by the current family. The house is unique from any other structures on the historic grounds of Chautauqua Institution.

Current owners Stewart and Donna Kohl have carefully preserved the original blue prints and vintage photos of what was then the “pink house” on the north lake shore, as well as seven hand drawn renderings of seven light fixtures custom designed especially for the house by Paul Williams.

The Ritts/Kohl house was featured in the 1949-1950 Exhibition Timeline and can be seen in the photo gallery at www.paulrwilliams.org.   It was also the cover feature in the winter 2015 issue of Lake Erie Living Magazine.

Williams opened his practice in the early 1920’s when the real estate market in Southern California was booming. He designed both small, affordable homes and large revival-style houses for his more affluent clients who included Sammy Davis Jr., Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Danny Thomas and Barron Hilton. He also built many schools, churches, hotels, hospitals and other public buildings that have become American architectural landmarks.

The Ritts/Kohl lake house was one of many popular stops on the Bird, Tree and Garden Club 2016 House Tour.