The architecture of Julia Morgan

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NO one would have called Julia Morgan, from her look or manner, an extraordinary person. Still, she is today regarded by many as America's most highly inventive and distinguished woman architect. Her manner was unassuming (she stood just five feet tall). Her looks were plain, even frail, and she courted anonymity. So it is perhaps a surprise that she should have designed what is arguably the country's most ostentatious and theatrical structure, a castle that is fit to - and almost did - bankrupt a millionaire, a structure that is at the same time an architectural masterpiece. This structure is ``Hearst's Castle,'' the ``Enchanted Hill'' at San Simeon, California. Since 1958, over 18 million visitors have toured it.

From 1904, when Julia Morgan started her own San Francisco practice, to 1951 when she closed her office, she designed upwards of 700 buildings. Closing her office, she burned her files and drawings, assuming they would be of interest only to clients who already owned their own copies.

Born in San Francisco in 1872, Morgan entered the University of California, Berkeley, in 1890 - one of only two dozen women students. In her sophomore year she decided to become an architect. Since no classes were available in architecture, she enrolled in the School of Engineering.

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After receiving her degree in civil engineering in 1894, Morgan went to work for California architect Bernard Maybeck. He encouraged her to further her training at the 'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.

Morgan had expected to stay in Paris two years. Because of obstacles put in her path by the school (she was the first woman ever admitted to its architectural program), it took her six years to complete her degree.

Returning to San Francisco in 1902, Morgan joined the office of John Galen Howard, supervising architect of the expanding University of California. There she worked on commissions for Phoebe Apperson Hearst, an influential supporter of the university.

The two women found a rapport. Morgan undertook the remodeling of Phoebe Hearst's Hacienda at Pleasanton, designed other buildings that Mrs. Hearst sponsored, and began a professional association with the Hearst family that lasted almost as long as her practice.

Architect Howard is said to have bragged about employing ``the best and most talented designer, whom I have to pay almost nothing as it is a woman.'' It is said he never forgave her for leaving his firm to open her own office, taking with her a young architect from his staff. As a result she was effectively excluded from significant UC work while Howard supervised campus architecture.

One of Morgan's first commissions was the Mission Revival Campanile for Mills College in Oakland, California. This structure of reinforced concrete held up during San Francisco's devastating 1906 earthquake. Because the Campanile withstood the quake, she received the commission to rebuild San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, and her reputation was made.

In addition to public buildings, Morgan was busy designing and building residences in San Francisco and nearby towns. She borrowed from Romanesque, Classic, Gothic, or Byzantine styles for public buildings; Tudor, Georgian, or 18th-century French for homes.

She did not copy but improvised, conceiving buildings from the inside out, seeking pleasing solutions to design problems which would provide her middle-class clients what they wanted. The building's appearance, however, consistent with the style, was characteristically hers.

Influenced at the start of her career by the Arts and Crafts movement of which Maybeck was a prominent exponent, Morgan incorporated the outdoors into the houses she built, seeking a building's materials from its own environment. She used large windows, courtyards, and open porches. Wood, for both interiors and particularly exteriors, was used to blend in with the landscape.

An excellent example of this craftsman style was St. John's Presbyterian Church, Berkeley (now the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts). Given a budget of less than $2 per square foot, she produced a building with exposed wooden studs and trusses.

From 1913 to 1915 Morgan designed and built Asilomar Conference Center, now a California state landmark, in Pacific Grove, for the YWCA, plus many other YWCA buildings.

The meticulous attention she paid to building materials is shown in the Oakland YWCA, which features 50 columns on the exterior, each column faced with thousands of small tiles. Morgan thoroughly inspected each of these individual tiles and threw out those with imperfections. Sometimes she ripped out faulty work with her bare hands.

It was not until 1919 that Enchanted Hill began as both a personal retreat for William Randolph Hearst and a showplace for his art and antique treasures. Though busy supervising construction of Enchanted Hill, Morgan continued her active San Francisco practice.

Morgan had a passion for professional anonymity. Her name was never posted on a construction site. She never married, but this neatly drab little woman let her work speak for her.

Dorothy Wormser Coblentz, one of several women who worked as a draftsman for Morgan and now an architect in her own right, said, ``she was a perfectionist ... nothing was left to chance.''

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