This piece has to begin with a saddening fact but a fact nonetheless: The amount of information available if you’re hoping to learn about black architects in Long Beach is devastatingly small.
That lack is as complex as it is multi-faceted: Racist policies and systems paired with an “emancipation” that left African-Americans completely disenfranchised meant upward mobility, in terms of both economics and education, was difficult if not an outright lofty dream for most blacks. Those who were able to succeed were often limited to the boundaries of their communities due to segregation and, even post-segregation, found that in larger society there was still animus toward black success.
For this reason and many others, there have been two well-regarded architects who have worked in our city.
In reality, of course, there are far more than two, but they are undocumented or their names have fallen from the spotlight in favor of a less colorful history of local architecture. In a city whose black culture helped define our overall culture, there have only been two black architects with a legacy rich enough that history can hold onto them—and that is largely because their legacies remain in Long Beach today.
Meet Paul R. Williams and Roy Sealey.
The name most remembered is that of Williams. Paul Revere Williams’ career has recently come back into focus with renewed interest in the history of African American architects in Southern California. His reputation as “Architect to the Stars” continues today given he designed luxurious homes for celebrities throughout Southern California, but his presence in Long Beach was experienced by far more than the top 1 percent.
Williams designed Long Beach’s Roosevelt Naval Base in partnership with Adrian Wilson and Donald R. Warren, which opened for use in 1943 following the American entrance into World War II. Williams’ name was the one that stuck, and the base became attributed to his practice with time. With its dedication in 1942, the base was declared to be the “largest fleet operating base in the world.”
After it was put into operation, Navy sailors came to Long Beach from throughout the country to serve on Roosevelt Base and to transfer ships. Many of these sailors were from the midwest, and they gained such a love of Long Beach’s pleasant weather and abundant work opportunities, that they returned after the war with their families. This massive influx of new residents from its early beginnings as Willmore City up to the result of the city’s Navy presence led to Long Beach’s reputation as “Iowa by the Sea.” Long Beach gained a nationwide reputation as a Navy town, which was abruptly abandoned when the base was scheduled for closure in 1993.
Following years of debate over its architectural significance and environmental security, the base was ultimately demolished in 1998. In a settlement, the Port of Long Beach provided funds to establish the Long Beach Navy Memorial Heritage Association in its honor, which today is managed by the Long Beach Community Foundation.
The Navy Trust provides funding to projects which promote Long Beach’s naval heritage, projects which honor the contribution of Paul R. Williams, or other historic preservation projects which provide a community benefit to the residents of Long Beach.
Williams’ most notable buildings which remain standing in Long Beach today are the once-upon-a-time bank and music venue located at Fourth Street and Pine Avenue—soon to become a church—and private residences, including the one pictured below and the Lloyd Whaley residence (that was put on the market for a cool $6.9 million in 2015).
Our other black architect, Roy Sealey, had his offices on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles and designed only one known building in Long Beach: the now-demolished Seaport Marina Hotel (originally opened as the Edgewater Inn; click here for a full history).
Roy A. Sealey was born in Panama and came to America with his mother and sister through Ellis Island in 1924. When he was 22 years old, the University of Southern California offered him an academic scholarship to come and study architecture after he had shown promise in the field studying at Prairie View Agricultural & Mechanical College in Texas.
After studying at Paul Williams’ alma mater, Sealey was given a spot working in the offices of the Architect to the Stars. Strangely enough, Sealey was one of his draftsmen during the design of Roosevelt Naval Base, and likely worked on the project under Williams’ supervision.
The young architect hoped to venture out on his own, and left in 1945 to pursue a practice independently. Williams—in a fatherly show of support and concern—worried he wouldn’t see success, and offered to instead grant him a six-month leave of absence in case a professional career wasn’t in the cards for Sealey and he needed to return to his old position.
Williams was quickly proved wrong, and by 1950, Sealey was profiled in Ebony as a success story for black architects, designing luxury homes and commercial buildings throughout Los Angeles.
In 1963, Sealey was given the commission to design the extravagant Edgewater Inn in Long Beach. Construction of the $3 million hotel kicked off in 1961—the same year that Downtown Long Beach had part of the ocean infilled for a new pier—after the city decided to invest millions for the upcoming two-year long California World’s Fair that would start in 1967 at Pier J.
The city, desperate to garner an international reputation and strengthen tourism and commercial activity in the Port of Long Beach, was prepared to pour over $200 million into planning for the event. New construction for the fair began in 1962 with ocean infill set to create a new pier, two miles long, near Downtown Long Beach. With as many as 40 million visitors expected over the course of the two-year event, construction began on the Seaport Marina Hotel.
It eventually opened in the beginning of 1963 and reflected mid-mod decadence at its best.
Sealey’s design integrated “200 guest rooms and suites; three restaurants, a coffee shop; two cocktail lounges; convention and meeting rooms seating up to 1,500 persons; and a yacht catering service.” In addition to these, the hotel also boasted a cabana club, parking for over 650 cars, and the first yacht dealership to be located in an American hotel.
Googie design throughout the hotel called for amusement, and went so far as to include telephone “booths” shaped as large clamshells to “remind one of Venus on the half-shell while phoning home.”
Despite running success after the grand opening, the hotel hit an unexpected hurdle just a year after its reveal when the City of Long Beach eliminated itself as the site of the upcoming World’s Fair by discontinuing a tax proposal that would have financed the required roads and facilities for the fair. Business for the hotel was lost with its purpose for construction. Without the projected income and increased tourism from the prospective event, the original owner was forced to sell the building and declare bankruptcy in 1966.
That same year, Sealey applied for membership to the American Institute of Architects and was granted AIA status. His application was well-received, and was submitted with formal recommendation for admittance from A. Quincy Jones and Paul Revere Williams, among others.
Today, Paul Williams’ Naval Base has been lost, the Bank of America seems perpetually under construction, and Sealey’s Seaport Marina Hotel is now demolished. The works of architecture we can attribute to documented black architects are becoming scarcer and, with such a devastating lack of knowledge of black history in architecture to begin with, it feels like there is nowhere to turn to uphold these important histories.
Perhaps the most significant way we can assure their relevance is simply saying they were here, they existed, and Paul R. Williams and Roy Sealey helped shape Long Beach in a way few have.
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