The Nevada Traveler: Reno closely linked to acclaimed L.A. Architect Paul Williams
The First Church of Christ, Scientist, also known as the Lear Theater, is one of a handful of structures in Reno that were designed in the first half of the 20th century by prominent African American architect Paul R. Williams.
Most histories of trailblazing architect Paul Revere Williams focus on the many buildings and homes he designed in the Los Angeles area. It’s not surprising since Williams, who lived most of his life there, designed such iconic properties as the Los Angeles County Courthouse and the spider-like, futuristic Theme Building at the Los Angeles International Airport. Additionally, Williams was in high demand among the Hollywood crowd, designing homes for Frank Sinatra, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lucille Ball, Barbara Stanwyck, and many others. But Williams, who was the first African American member of the prestigious American Institute of Architects, also designed a handful of buildings in the Reno area (as well as several in Las Vegas). His first job in the Biggest Little City was in 1934, when he designed a duplex at 599 California Avenue, known as the Luella Garvey House, after its original owner. Garvey, the widow of manufacturing magnate Clayton H. Garvey (a co-founder of U.S. Steel), had come to Reno in 1927 to obtain a divorce from her second husband (Garvey, her first, had died in 1925). She liked the community and decided to build a home there while continuing to live part of the year in Southern California. Apparently familiar with Williams’ work, she hired the architect to design a two-story, white Classical Revival-style duplex with French Regency and landscaping. Built at a cost of more than $40,000, the house was the most expensive home ever built in Reno up to that time. Following her death in 1942, the home was purchased by Reno gaming boss Nathan “Nick” Abelman and his wife. Abelman had gotten his start running casinos in Goldfield and Tonopah in the early 20th century, before relocating to Reno to operate several gambling establishments. The Abelmans owned the home until 1978 (Nick died in 1951 and his widow, June, continued to live in it until her death in 1978), when it was sold and converted into a single home. In addition to the Garvey House, Williams was called upon to design the Rafael Herman home, a Classical Revival-style house that is now part of Rancho San Rafael Regional Park. Constructed in 1936, the structure was commissioned by Raphael Herman, his brother Norman Herman, and Norman’s wife, Mariana. The wealthy Herman family had acquired the 300-acre cattle ranch in early 1936 in order to establish Nevada residency and take advantage of the state’s favorable tax laws. The house boasts 18 rooms to accommodate the Hermans and their full staff when visiting, although it doesn’t look that large from the outside. Today, it services as meeting rooms for the park. A year later, Williams was hired to design 15 prefabricated steel housing units, known as the El Reno Apartments. The cluster was originally located at 1307 S. Virginia St., to serve as short-term housing for those coming to Nevada to obtain a six-week divorce. About a decade later, Roland “Joe” Giroux, who owned the complex, decided to sell off the individual units, which were relocated to other neighborhoods in the city. One of the best preserved is at 711 Mount Rose St. Perhaps the most ambitious Williams’ project in the Biggest Little City was the First Church of Christ, Scientist at 501 Riverside Drive, now known as the Lear Theater. Completed in 1939, the structure, which cost $140,000, was built in a Neoclassical Revival style with large columns and a double-curved portico. It was large enough to accommodate 600 people. The church remained in use until 1998, when the congregation relocated to a newer facility. That same year, local philanthropist Moya Lear purchased the building and donated it to a nonprofit group, the Reno-Sparks Theater Coalition, to preserve and use as a performing arts theater. The coalition, however, was unable to raise sufficient funds to renovate the former church and, in 2011, it was deeded to Artown, a nonprofit group that sponsors a month-long arts and events celebration in July. In 2021, the city of Reno purchased the site and adjacent parking lot and is still determining what to do with the historic building. Interestingly, many historic surveys credit Williams with designing a fifth project in Reno, the Loomis Manor Apartments on Riverside Avenue, but there is some disagreement about whether he was the architect on that development. Born in Los Angeles in 1894, Williams studied at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design and the University of Southern California before embarking on a successful career as an architect. During the course of his long career, Williams designed more than 2,500 buildings. He retired in 1973 and died in Los Angeles in 1980. In 2020, he was the subject of a PBS documentary, “Hollywood’s Architect,” which can be viewed at www.pbs.org/video/hollywoods-architect-3prwsa A good comprehensive guide to Williams’ Reno work can be found on historian Alicia Barber’s excellent website: www.renohistorical.org/tours/show/16