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Rare Paul Revere Williams home in Iowa seeking historic protection

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The architect’s California cool found its way to Cedar Rapids

Mike Pitzen

Legendary architect Paul Revere Williams, a trailblazing black designer, was known for his ease with residential design, sketching magnificent homes for the Los Angeles elite during the early 20th century. From sleek midcentury homes to Tudor Revival mansions in some of Southern California’s ritziest neighborhoods, he had a hand in creating some of Hollywood’s glitz and glamour.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, may seem far removed from Williams’s oeuvre, which included high-end homes as well as famous Los Angeles landmarks such as the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport or the Late Moderne-style Superior Court of Los Angeles County. But a stately mansion on a hilltop out of town represents a rare midwestern departure for the famed architect.

The home, known as the Hilltop Farm, was first designed in 1934 for the owner of a local wholesale grocery business, Weaver G. Witwer. It boasts many of William’s signature touches, including an elliptical stairway and grand entrance. Its new owner hopes to get the house listed on the National Register, preserving a rare example of Williams’s California cool transported to the Midwest.

A sketch of the home by the architect
Courtesy Mike Pitzen
An old black-and-white image of the home from the ‘30s.
Courtesy Mike Pitzen

Mike Pitzen, the owner of a local custom cabinet shop, Cabinet Studio & Lighting, recently purchased the home in near original condition, with much of the original furniture and fixturess still intact.

After Witwer passed away in 1979, he left the home in trust to his niece and great niece, who were given the opportunity to live in the house all expenses paid, but had to stay there at least six months out of the year. Being from California, they didn’t want to split their time between the Midwest and West Coast, so the house was eventually auctioned to Ernie and Joanne Buresh in 1987.

They donated the house to the University of Iowa a few years ago, which recently decided to sell the house and surrounding 40 acres of land for $750,000. Pitzen bought the house and three acres of land for $400,000, “splitting” the purchase with another buyer, who took control of the remaining land.

Despite its provenance, there wasn’t much interest in the house, he told Curbed. Others buyers were considering purchasing the property and then knocking down the home.

Street view of the home
Mike Pitzen
The home’s elliptical staircase
Mike Pitzen

Pitzen says the two-story, four-bedroom, 8,500-square-foot home is “really a treat,” and looks like “a California home plopped down in Iowa.” Perched on a hilltop, it offers views for miles, including beautiful sunrises. Described as both a California Colonial and Hollywood Regency design, the home boasts a pool in the backyard, two big sun rooms, and a large entryway. While there’s brick and wood throughout, the interior of the home is steel and concrete. Evidently Witwer was afraid of fire, as the building contains extra fire hoses.

Supposedly, Witwer became enchanted with the architect’s work during a trip to see family in LA, and requested his own Williams home in Iowa. The project gets brief mentions in some compendiums of his career, but generally isn’t well known.

Paul Revere Williams
Paul Revere Williams Project

Witwer found success as a wholesale grocer in the ‘30s, operating a network of farms and later expanding into the supermarket business. According to his obituary in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, his company operated a fleet of red trucks seen throughout the Midwest. In 1937, he built the opulent home and stables on what was then called East Post Road.

Pitzen believes the home deserves protection and recognition, not the least because of Williams’ pioneering career—he was the first black architect in the AIA—and is going to have it registered as a historic structure with the county and state.

“I want it to be recognized for what it is and preserve it for as long as I possibly can,” Pitzen says.

The backyard pool
Mike Pitzen
Courtesy Mike Pitzen