January 20, 1872 – Julie Morgan
Morgan was born and died in San Francisco. In 1896, she moved to Paris refusing to accept the initial rejections from the École des Beaux-Arts. She finally gained admittance and became the first woman to receive the famed school’s degree in Architecture. Except for that important six-year stint in Paris, Morgan spent her entire life in Northern California. She did design a YWCA in Honolulu in 1920 and she sent sketches by mail for a house to be built in New Zealand in 1928, but nearly all her other commissions were in California. And a staggering number of commissions there were.
Morgan was the first female architect to be licensed by the state of California. She had more than 700 projects during her career, averaging 15 a year between the time she founded her office in San Francisco in 1904 and her retirement in 1951, when she was 79-years-old. Those projects included the Herald Examiner Building in downtown Los Angeles, a combination of Moorish and Mission Revival styles and Wyntoon, the newspaper’s owner, William Randolph Hearst‘s estate near Mount Shasta, where she designed several buildings between 1924 and 1943. Hearst was Morgan’s most consistent and supportive client, commissioning her to design the extravagant group of buildings in San Simeon, known as Hearst Castle.
Morgan’s specialties included residences and YWCAs and other women’s clubs. A loose group of well-connected women around California gave her support and commissions throughout her career.
At the Asilomar Conference Grounds on the Monterey Peninsula, she designed 16 buildings for the YWCA between 1913 and 1929.
During her most prolific years, she juggled two or three dozen projects at the same time. She worked 18-hour days.
In Julia Morgan, Architect (1995) by Sara Holmes Boutelle, the author writes:
She steadfastly refused to enter competitions, write articles, submit photographs to architectural magazines, or serve on committees, dismissing such activities as fit only for ‘talking architects’.
Morgan never ascribed her work to any theory or school. She built a following among her own professional circles and, largely, in the San Francisco Bay Area. She understood structure and the behavior of materials deeply enough to make her architecture a vehicle for experiments in engineering, especially in her embrace of concrete.
Being a woman in a profession dominated by men influenced the way she carried herself. Morgan had a disdain for publicity. Her clients may have accepted the idea of a female architecture, but they would not have been thrilled to see Morgan engaging in any cause, especially a feminist one. Her priority was always to safeguard her ability to do her work.
She was one of the first female students in the University of California system to earn a degree in civil engineering, in 1894. In her first year as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley she had to rely on her brother to chaperone her by horse-drawn streetcar between the university and the family’s home in Oakland. In a letter from Paris, she wrote with some frustration that one of her École instructors: ”…always seemed astonished if I do anything that shows the least intelligence.”
Her consistency, her distaste for self-promotion, and the obstacles she faced as a female architect probably explain why her work was admired rather than celebrated.
When prompted by a client like Hearst, her architecture could be theatrical, whimsical, even extravagant. The buildings at San Simeon and Wyntoon are all three.
The projects over which she had more creative control were subtler, and often let material richness speak more loudly than any form or style. Her work was characterized by her use of the California vernacular with distinctive elements that were characteristic of the Arts and Crafts movement, including exposed support beams, horizontal lines that blended with the landscape and extensive use of shingles, California Redwood and earth tones. Most of her building are a blend of Arts and Crafts, Romanesque, Gothic, Tudor elements with a dash of Spanish Colonialism. Her buildings brought together regional, historical, and cultural references all at once. Morgan’s YWCA for San Francisco’s Chinatown, finished in 1932, is a good example; it’s a masonry building in a hilly urban setting with three towers topped turrets composed of Chinese tile.
Nothing can beat Hearst Castle. Hearst approached her about designing a little something at the top of 250,000 acres he owned near San Simeon because he was tired of camping up there. He thought he wanted a bungalow. It became a castle. It became a 28-year project, in part because of its scale: 58 bedrooms, 60 bathrooms, 41 fireplaces, in part because he constantly tinkered, demolished and rebuilt the epic outdoor Neptune pool three times before he was satisfied. The indoor Roman pool is even more lavish.
She personally designed most of the structures, grounds, pools, animal shelters and workers’ quarters down to the minutest detail. Morgan worked closely with Hearst to curate his vast art collection, integrating them into the structures and grounds at San Simeon. You can see it for just $25. Hearst Castle is open to the public, four hours from Los Angeles or San Francisco, the trip there is breathtaking.
She also worked on projects for Hearst’s other properties including the ”Hopi” residence at the Grand Canyon, the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Memorial Gymnasium at UC Berkeley, several of his Beverly Hills residences and his mistress Marion Davies‘ beach house in Santa Monica.
You might not have ever heard of her, yet Morgan was an astonishingly, groundbreaking figure. Her professional success and longevity were the radical statements for her era. Think of it; in the late Victorian era, she sailed to Paris after college because she had heard that the École might soon open its entrance examinations to women. She learned French and worked as the only female architect in a series of Parisian ateliers. The École’s exam was taxing, with written and oral sections; in a typical year, 90 percent of the applicants failed. On her first try in 1897, competing in a foreign language, she placed 42nd of 376, which was not high enough: Only the top 30 were admitted. She failed a second time the following spring. In the fall of 1898, she tried a third time and succeeded, with the 13th highest score.
She took some solace that nearly all the French applicants who’d passed had also failed the first two times. She explained her determination to keep trying in a letter to friends:
A mixture of dislike of giving up something attempted and the sense of its being a sort of test in a small way, of work itself overcoming its natural disadvantages, made it seem a thing that really had to be won.
Defiant about not being a debutante, she was very quiet about being a lesbian. In my research I only find one named lover, filmmaker Dorothy Arzner, and who didn’t get on with Arzner?
She spent her career creating elegant, efficient communal living spaces for many people, from working-class city girls to one of the richest men in America. She gave no interviews and did not write about herself. She worked tirelessly on minimal sleep and food. She lived in a room at the Berkeley City Club, which she designed, sleeping on a cot. When she retired in 1951, she had all her blueprints and other materials destroyed. She thought the only people who might have any use for them were her clients, and they had their own copies. She died six years later at 85-years-old.