Monday, February 4, 2013

Julia Morgan: California's First Female Architect

Julia Morgan
Anyone, resident or tourist, who has spent time in San Francisco has seen evidence of Julia Morgan's work. In the course of her 50-year career, Morgan designed over 700 buildings, many of which were Arts and Crafts houses found in Berkeley, Oakland, and Piedmont. Morgan's buildings are distinguished by her client-centered approach to design, her use of locally available materials, and her integration of the varied architectural traditions of the West with the vocabulary of a Beaux-Arts background. Although Morgan's buildings do not reflect one definitive style, they all exhibit a fine attention to detail and a craftsman-like quality of construction. [1]

A young woman of means with family money, Morgan was still determined to pursue a career. Fortunately, her parents were open minded people who encouraged their daughters to seek careers that would be meaningful to them at a time during the late Victorian era when women were expected only to be wives and mothers. Morgan attended the University of California at Berkeley with a strong interest in Mathematics which led to her major in engineering. Architect and guest lecturer Bernard Maybeck, was impressed with Morgan and included her in a series of informal architecture seminars at his Berkeley home. His philosophy espoused that, whenever possible, a building should appear to be integrated into its environment both in the way it fits into the site, and through the use of natural materials.[2] Maybeck encouraged Morgan to continue her studies at the prestigious École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he had distinguished himself.

After graduation from Berkeley in 1894 with a degree in civil engineering, the only female in her engineering class, Morgan headed to Paris in 1896 in spite of the fact that a woman had never before been admitted to study within the architectural division of the École. [3] The Paris school is the namesake and founding location of the Beaux Arts architectural movement in the early twentieth century. Known for demanding classwork and rigorous standards for education, the École attracted students from around the world – including the United States, where students returned to design buildings that would influence the history of architecture in America, including the Boston Public Library, 1888–1895, and the New York Public Library, 1897–1911. Architectural graduates, especially in France, are granted the title élève.

After she earned her diploma in 1902, Morgan returned to the Bay Area where she worked on various projects while she saved towards the establishment of own practice. By 1904, Morgan opened her first office at 456 Montgomery, a building that was demolished in the earthquake of 1906. Timing is everything. Morgan's career flourished in the wake of the earthquake with the ensuing architectural boom that provided her with commissions that included houses, churches, clubs, banks, schools, hospitals, and commercial space.

Morgan was highly regarded, especially by women, which led to a number of commissions for women's clubs, residence halls, and YWCA (Young Women's Christian Association)-five in San Francisco, including the interior of the YWCA for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the World's Fair. 
Julia Morgan
The Chinatown, San Francisco, YWCA
Current home of the Chinese Historical Society of America
Photo Courtesy of the Chinese Historical Society of America

Completed ca. 1932
Morgan ran her office in the atelier style she had learned at the Beaux-Arts, creating a learning environment for all who worked there. Boutelle wrote: "Her generosity of spirit, as evidenced by the profit-sharing in the office and her support of her staff … make her come alive as a person dedicated to her associates and to the practice of architecture." [4]

Julia Morgan
Casa Grande-The Main House
60,645 square-feet
Mediterranean Revival Style
Hearst Castle Complex
Among her most well-known projects is Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. In 1919 William Randolph Hearst hired Morgan to design a main building and guest houses for his ranch located along the coast in San Simeon. Hearst had inherited this land along with an estimated $11 million when his mother passed away during the influenza epidemic. He instructed Morgan to build “something that would be more comfortable” than the platform tents that he'd employed at the ranch. Morgan’s classical training in Paris, her background in engineering, and her use of reinforced concrete, suited her well for the project. [5]

William Randolf Hearst with Julia Morgan
At the San Simeon Site
ca. 1926
Photograph: Irvin Willat

Over the course of the next 28 years, Morgan supervised nearly every aspect of construction at San Simeon, including the purchase of everything from Spanish antiquities to Icelandic Moss, to reindeer for the Castle’s zoo. She personally designed most of the structures, grounds, pools, animal shelters and workers’ camp down to the minutest detail. In addition, Morgan worked closely with Hearst to integrate his vast art collection into the structures and grounds at the castle complex. [6] By 1947, Hearst and Morgan had created an estate of 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways.

Julia Morgan
Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California
Neptune Pool
Photo ca. 1995
Morgan also created many modest homes for middle-class families. She specialized in local materials, particularly in her designs for smaller, less expensive houses and, in this way, her works can be comparable to other more familiar California progressive architects such as contemporaries Charles and Henry Greene, and her mentor, Maybeck. The Williams House (1928) is considered one of Morgan's most beautiful. The front facade is formal and symmetrical (seven windows across the second register and a central formal entrance) with quoins at the corners, and a frieze around the main door that evoke Renaissance architecture. The iron balcony and Mission tile roof suggest Mediterranean influences. The right wing and the garden facade have windows with Gothic tracery. Another window suggests Moorish influences. [7]

Julia Morgan
Williams House

Julia Morgan
Williams House
Window with Gothic Tracery

Whether commissioned by the likes of Hearst or the middle class, Morgan gave her clients a carefully considered solution. In 1950, after forty-five years in a practice during which she shared all her profits with her atelier-like staff, she closed her office and had her records destroyed. Morgan insisted that the buildings should speak for her adding that "architecture is a visual, not a verbal art." She died in February, 1957, at the age of 85.

Further Reading:
Sara Boutelle, Julia Morgan, Architect (1988).
Richard Longstreth, Julia Morgan— Architect (1977).
Two articles by Boutelle: "The Woman Who Built San Simeon," in the California Monthly (1976), and "Women's Networks: Julia Morgan and her Clients," in Heresies of 1981.
Nancy Loe, San Simeon Revisited (1987), a collection of the correspondence between the architect and William Randolph Hearst.
"The Julia Morgan Architectural History Project." The University of California at Berkeley __________________________________
1. Architectural World, Great Buildings, Julia Morgan, Architect, (accessed February 1, 2013).
2. Wilson, Mark. Julia Morgan: Architect of Beauty. (Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2007). 3.
3. David Parry, Julia Morgan, Architect, Encyclopedia of San Francisco, Entry taken from the website of David Parry at (accessed February 1, 2013).
4. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Robert E. Kennedy Library. Biography: Julia Morgan. (accessed February 4, 2013).
5. California State Parks: Hearst Castle. (accessed February 4, 2013).
6. Ibid.
7. Berkeley California: Williams House, 1928. (accessed February 4, 2013).

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