Commentary: Julia Morgan (1872-1957)

Julia Morgan on Balcony in Paris. (Photo courtesy of Morgan-Boutelle Collection, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic State University)

Most of you know of Julia Morgan considering her impact on the design and construction of the Hearst Castle. Did you know, she was not even mentioned when the “Castle” first opened? Morgan was born on Jan. 20, 1872, in San Francisco, and died there in 1957. For those who do not know of her vast collection of work, things are about to change.

Recently, I sat down with Gordon Fuglie of Atascadero about a traveling exhibition of Julia Morgan’s work. Gordon’s curator experience includes working for the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, Laband Art Gallery at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Mulvane Art Museum in Kansas and many independent curator endeavors.

Gordon will act as curator and choose from Morgan’s 9,000 architectural sketches housed at Hearst Castle, never been seen by the public. They are digitized for the traveling exhibit opening at the Crocker Museum in Sacramento 2020 and continuing to the Laguna Art Museum in the Laguna Beach Historical Society in SF and the Monterey Museum of Art — a collaboration among Cal Poly Library, Crocker Museum and Laguna Art Museum

When I lived in the Bay Area, I saw many of Morgan’s buildings having no idea these were just a few of 700 built projects during her career, averaging 15 per year between the time she opened her SF office in 1904 and closed in 1951, when she was 79. The scale of her projects is remarkable.

Bernard Maybeck, a famed architect in his own right, was her teacher and mentor encouraging Morgan to study, as he had, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, then the world’s most prestigious architecture school.

Having Maybeck and Phoebe Hearst (mother of William Hearst) as mentors and the support of an affluent family helped secure her goal as an architect. She sailed to Paris because the École had opened its entrance examinations to women. She learned French. The École’s exam was taxing — 90 percent of applicants failed. In 1898, on her third try, she succeeded with the 13th highest score. Subsequently, Morgan became the first female to earn a degree from the architecture division of the École des Beaux-Arts.

She spent her entire life in Oakland, Berkeley, and SF. Morgan was the first female architect to be licensed in California designing both institutional buildings and private homes in the Bay area preferring to use indigenous materials carefully designed for often topographically difficult sites. Morgan reveled in collaborating, exploring and listening to her clients. “She ran as efficient an office as I’ve ever been in,” one of her employees said.

Morgan understood the structure and the behavior of materials deeply enough to make her architecture a vehicle for experiments in engineering, especially in her early embrace of concrete.

Much of SF was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake, an event that precipitated a construction boom. She was chosen to rebuild the grand Fairmont Hotel as well as a large number of private homes in the Bay Area. 

Along with Maybeck and other contemporaries, Morgan followed the emphasis on symmetry and decorum of the classical European approach combined with the connection to region and landscape fundamental to the Bay Region architecture. Morgan’s secretary, Lillian Forney, said “Her houses were built from the inside out; she thought about how the people were to live. That was what was important to her.”

Architecture, construction and engineering were fields dominated by men, and yet “all the biases against her, she turned into assets,” said Julia Donoho, an architect and lawyer who successfully nominated Morgan for the 2014 American Institute of Architects (AIA) Gold Medal — the first time the organization gave its highest honor to a woman.

The Journal of (AIA) highlights Julia Morgan’s posthumous award — the 2014 AIA Gold Medal by the AIA conferred “by the national AIA Board of Directors recognizing her significant body of work of lasting influence.”

Many critics and architectural historians read her buildings against the backdrop of emerging Modernism and dismissed her architecture as fussy or eclectic, which for many were synonyms for undisciplined. This view lionized those architects who broke new formal ground or dramatically cut stylistic ties from their predecessors.

Phoebe A. Hearst and her son William R. Hearst were Morgan’s most consistent and supportive clients. Phoebe introduced Morgan to her son, the newspaper tycoon, for whom she designed the block long stucco Examiner Building in SF in 1915. Morgan then spent 25 years working with Hearst, spending a majority of her weekends at the “Castle.”

Morgan’s specialties included private houses as well as 25 YWCAs, such as the Chinese YWCA in SF (now the Chinese Historical Society), the Berkeley City Club and dozens of homes across California. Phoebe Hearst commissioned Morgan for Asilomar Conference Grounds, in Monterey. She designed 16 buildings for Asilomar between 1913 and 1929.

Her skills went out of style in the 1950s with more emphasis on the new and modern. Morgan was largely forgotten until the1988 biography, “Julia Morgan, Architect,” by the architectural historian Sara Boutelle.

Go to lib.calpoly.edu/search-and-find/collections-and-archives/architectural/julia-morgan/ for the Julia Morgan on-line exhibition.

Advertisement

More In Opinion