You may know nothing about architecture, yet there’s a good chance you’ve already appreciated the work of California’s first licensed female architect Julia Morgan.
Morgan’s 700 buildings not only represent the style of her time, but they each also have their own identity and design, which makes it hard to believe they all came from the mind of one person.
Her client list included William Randolph Hearst, gold mine owners, the Youth Women’s Christian Association, and many more.
Early Life and Education
Morgan was born on Jan. 20, 1872, in San Francisco, to a mother with deep family wealth and a father who had a number of failed business attempts.
In 1890, she graduated from Oakland High School and enrolled at the University of California, where she studied engineering due to the lack of an architecture program.
After graduating with her degree in engineering, her former professor, Bernard Maybeck, encouraged Morgan to attend École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Morgan was initially refused admission because the school had never admitted a woman before, but after waiting for two years, Morgan was admitted. She became the first woman to receive a certificate in architecture from the esteemed art school.
Beginning her Career and Early Projects
In 1904, after returning to San Francisco, Morgan opened her own office in the carriage house of her parents’ home and became the first woman to receive California’s State Architectural License.
One of her first projects was in 1904 when she was hired to design the El Campanil bell tower at Mills College in Oakland.
The tower houses 10 bells that were cast in 1893 for the Columbian International Exposition in Chicago but sat without a home until the completion of the tower in 1904.
The tower survived the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes.
One of her other early works was the North Star House, just outside of Grass Valley, for North Star Mine owner James Hague.
Morgan began designing the 10,000-square-foot Frist Bay Tradition Arts and Craft style home between 1903 and 1904 and completed it in 1905.
The home is on the State and National Registers of Historic Places and has been undergoing a full restoration.
Rebuilding the Fairmont Hotel, a Turning Point
One of Morgan’s most significant undertakings in the early part of her career was rebuilding the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake.
According to California State Parks, Morgan was entrusted with resetting steel girders, replacing marble columns and reinforcing stairs. Within a year the hotel was reopened.
With the completion of a bell tower, a large private home and rebuilding an iconic hotel, Morgan next took on building bungalow cottages in 1910 for the U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.
Morgan was hired by her brother-in-law Hart H. North, Commissioner at the U.S. Immigration Station, to build the 12 bungalows that would house the family and staff that worked at the station.
All that remains of the cottages today are their concrete foundations after a fire burned them down in 1971 during a fire-training exercise during the filming of “The Candidate” with Robert Redford.
The Asilomar and the YWCA
One of Morgan’s largest projects was the design and construction of 17 Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) sites, including the massive Asilomar in Pacific Grove.
Her work at Asilomar would continue from 1913 to 1928, during which she designed Merrill Hall, a dining room, a chapel auditorium and lodges.
Asilomar became the nation’s first women’s summer camp and conference grounds owned by a woman’s organization, according to California State Parks.
Once again, this project is a great example of the Arts and Craft Style. All of the buildings are National Historic Landmarks.
As Morgan’s name became more widely known, her work began to expand beyond the Bay Area and Central Coast.
Fresno, Sacramento and the Julia Morgan House
In 1918, she would build the Julia Morgan House, which is the only example of her residential architecture in Sacramento.
She was commissioned by Lizzie Glide to build the home as a wedding gift to her daughter Mary Glide Goethe and her husband Charles Goethe.
After Charles Goethe died in 1966, the home was given to The Foundation at Sacramento State, which is known today as University Enterprises Inc.
The home was constructed in a Mediterranean style and in 1999 underwent remodeling and restoration by UEI to “preserve its authenticity.”
Morgan then ventured down the Central Valley to Fresno in the early 1920s where she designed three more YWCA centers. A residence hall was built on M Street, a small bungalow and activities building in West Fresno and the Recreation Center on Tuolumne and L Streets.
A remodel in 1965 modernized the recreation center beyond the point of recognizing Morgan’s original designs.
A Monument to California’s Redwoods
During the early 1930s, Morgan’s talents were brought into the deep old-growth redwood forests of northern California.
The California Federation of Women’s Clubs hired Morgan in 1933 to design a memorial that symbolizes the club’s effort in purchasing a 106-acre old-growth redwood grove through the Save the Redwoods League. The grove protected more than 1,000 redwood trees.
Morgan designed four stone fireplaces that share a central chimney called the Hearthstone.
“Oversized rocks, collected along the south fork of the Eel River, face all aspects of the structure,” California State Parks writes in their description of the structure. “Cut tree trunks support wood roofs that cover the open hearths. Stone bench inglenooks provide a resting place.”
Today that tree grove is a part of the Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
Hearst Castle and other projects of William Randolph Hearst
One of the most notorious clients of Morgan’s was the Hearst family, specifically William Randolph Hearst.
At the start of her career, before opening her own office, Morgan had been hired by the Hearst family for other projects.
In 1919, William Randolph Hearst would hire Morgan to design a main building and guest houses that would serve better than the raised tents at his San Simeon Ranch.
This would be the first of many assignments that Morgan would carry out to create the 28-year project that has become known as Hearst Castle.
Morgan designed the majority of the structures and pools, including the Neptune pool and indoor Roman pool, grounds, animal shelters and workers’ camps.
She told Hearst that her commission needed to be 8.5 percent of architectural services, up from her usual 6 percent, as she was “running the job.”
Hearst employed Morgan for several other projects at properties he owned, including the Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica.
Hearst purchased five acres of beachfront property for movie star Marion Davies in the 1920s and originally hired designer William Edward Flannery, but fired him after Flannery was having difficulties with the project.
Morgan was brought on to finish the main home and then designed a pool and a 7,000-square-foot guest house with gardens.
When the home was finished in 1929 with its 110 rooms, 37 fireplaces and 55 bathrooms it was dubbed the “Versailles of Hollywood.”
Construction at Hearst Castle would cease in 1947 as Hearst’s finances became strained, and in 1951, at the age of 79, Morgan would retire in the Bay Area.
She eventually pass away on Feb. 2, 1957, at the age of 85.
A Legacy of Greatness
In 2014, 57 years after her death, Morgan was posthumously awarded a Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects, the highest honor of the institute.
“At a time when there were few women in the professional world, when we weren’t even allowed to vote, Julia was a real trailblazer,” Senator Dianne Feinstein said in her speech to the AIA. “She is living proof that no matter the obstacles, no matter the status quo you can achieve greatness.”
So if you find yourself in the major cities of the Bay Area, a seaside town on the central coast, the Capital City or one of California’s ancient forests you could be looking at the artistry of one of California’s most prolific architects.