How Julia Morgan became an architectural pioneer in a man’s world

Victoria Kastner’s “Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect,” pulls back the curtain on the designer of over 700 buildings. 

“Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect,” by Victoria Kastner, Chronicle Books, 240 pp.

On her first visit to Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, author Victoria Kastner heard the tour guide explain that “an architect named Julia Morgan built this entire estate” – complete with interior design and landscaping – “but we don’t know anything about her.” Kastner’s curiosity was piqued, and she eventually became the official historian at Hearst Castle, the grand estate of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. 

Now Kastner has written “Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect,” which draws back the curtain on the first woman to study architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1898 and the first female licensed architect in California in 1904. Lovers of art, history, and women’s studies alike will thoroughly enjoy this comprehensive account of a figure who not only overcame incredible obstacles to pursue her craft, but did so with considerable grace and inner strength. 

Drawing upon firsthand recollections from Morgan’s family members, colleagues, and even recently discovered diary entries from Morgan herself (1872-1957), Kastner paints a well-rounded, engaging picture of her subject from both a deeply personal and professional lens.

Marc Wanamaker/Bison Archives/Chronicle Books
Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst consults with Julia Morgan on the design of his estate at San Simeon.

While Morgan’s father, Charles, was a pie-in-the-sky businessman, chasing one unsuccessful venture after the next, she most likely inherited a sense of joyous persistence from his example, Kastner argues. Likewise, Morgan’s mother, Eliza, was a powerful role model, since Eliza had to pick up the pieces after Charles’ latest flop. She was the pragmatic, intellectual one in the relationship. It was the combination of these qualities that held Morgan in good stead when she traveled to Paris after college to study architecture. 

The journey overseas was at the encouragement of her teacher and mentor Bernard Maybeck. He was an alumnus of the École des Beaux-Arts himself, having studied there in the 1880s. When Maybeck met Morgan at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Fine Art in San Francisco, he quickly took notice of her superior talent among his students. Morgan even helped design a few homes under Maybeck’s supervision before making the trip.

Morgan faced one difficulty after another in Paris. She had to jockey for entrance into a highly competitive program that (initially) did not allow women. Once admitted, she endured sexist taunting from her classmates. Expenses were tight and she slept little. While many male students took six years to finish the program, Morgan did it in three, and became the first woman to earn a certificate of completion. In all these instances, her quiet sense of purpose gave her the strength to forge ahead without bitterness, without diversion, and without telling her family that she was homesick.

Alexander Vertikoff/Chronicle Books
The tiled swimming pool is a highlight of the Berkeley Women’s City Club in Berkeley, California, designed by Julia Morgan and completed in 1930.

When she returned home in triumph, Morgan carved out a prolific career, designing and overseeing the construction of approximately 700 structures. The impressive list not only includes private residences and women’s clubs – as was the primary focus for female architects of her time – but also a grand hotel, houses of worship, municipal buildings, school campuses, commercial centers, a theater, and a mausoleum. Visitors can still explore sites like the Grace H. Dodge Chapel and the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum in California, as well as some of the dormitories of Principia College in Illinois, which Morgan took on for Maybeck after site changes and labor unrest became an issue. 

As the biography also makes clear, part of what made Morgan so adept at her craft was that she could create something livable and satisfactory even for clients with the most outlandish ideas. One memorable anecdote tells of a couple who commissioned a house with the stipulation that it possess no right angles. Even more extraordinary was the work she undertook for Hearst, with whom Morgan enjoyed several decades of creative partnership. Their most notable project together, Hearst Castle, is a testament to Morgan’s steadfast character and artistic vision, given Hearst’s tendency to change his mind, overextend his finances, and import more pieces of art from Europe than he could house or knew what to do with. Throughout their time together, Morgan relished the opportunity to “play at work.” 

Alexander Vertikoff/Chronicle Books
A feeling of serenity pervades the Grace H. Dodge Chapel at the Asilomar conference center on California’s Monterey Peninsula. The 1915 chapel echoes the area’s natural beauty.

Regardless of the size or notoriety of a project, Morgan consistently displayed a solid commitment to meeting the needs of the client and their budget, blending classic beaux arts style with modern energy, and utilizing materials that were so durable they could withstand even the region’s biggest earthquakes. 

As her fame grew across the United States, she maintained a humble spirit that led her to turn down press interviews in favor of keeping busy with the work at hand. (Incidentally, one of the few interviews she gave in her lifetime was for The Christian Science Monitor in 1931.) In Morgan’s mind, no job was too small, and no publicity was necessary.

Alexander Vertikoff/Chronicle Books
Merrill Hall was designed by Julia Morgan in 1928 for the Asilomar conference center. It retains the Arts and Crafts sensibilities of her other Asilomar buildings, 11 of which are still standing.

Perhaps this is why Morgan’s achievements have gone largely uncelebrated. The author explains that it was only after several individuals lobbied the American Institute of Architects on Morgan’s behalf that she was posthumously awarded a Gold Medal in 2014. She was the institute’s first female recipient.

As her longtime engineer and friend, Walter Steilberg, wrote in Morgan’s obituary for the American Institute of Architects: “Julia Morgan’s long and useful life is evidence that even in these frantic times an architect with real ability and dedicated purpose can – without resorting to either publicity tricks or displays of egotism – contribute much to the advancement of the profession and leave a beloved and honored memory.”

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