Morgan, Julia (1872–1957)

views updated

Morgan, Julia (1872–1957)

American architect who designed over 700 buildings but is best known for creating a modern-day castle for millionaire William Randolph Hearst. Born on January 20, 1872, in San Francisco, California; died on February 2, 1957, in San Francisco from a series of strokes; daughter of Charles Bill Morgan and Eliza Woodland (Parmelee) Morgan; attended grammar and high school in Oakland; first woman to enroll in the College of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley; received diploma in Civil Engineering, 1894; first woman accepted in the department of architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France, and received certificate, 1902; passed the California state exam and became the state's first certified woman architect, 1904.

Moved West with parents where her father hoped to make a fortune in gold and silver mines (1878); after investment soured, traveled East with mother to spend a year with her grandparents; while in New York, formed a lasting friendship with cousin Lucy Thornton and Thornton's architect husband Pierre Lebrun, the first to influence her; while at Berkeley, met Phoebe Hearst, who became a lifelong friend and patron; in senior year, studied under Bernard Maybeck, a charismatic teacher and architect who suggested she try to enter the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1890–94); left Oakland for the East Coast and Europe where she traveled with a friend (1896); accepted at the École des Beaux-Arts after the incredible stress of preparing for the entrance exam (October 1898); was joined in Paris by her younger brother Avery; met Phoebe Hearst's son William Randolph Hearst (1903) which led to the most flamboyant architectural creation of her career, the Hearst Castle; devastated by the deaths of her two younger brothers (1913 and 1940).

Julia Morgan's professional milestones span 47 years: El Campanil (Bell Tower) at Mills College, Oakland (1903–04); library at Mills College (1905–06); Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco: reconstruction after the earthquake and fire (1906–07); Methodist Chinese Mission, San Francisco (1907–10); St. John's Presbyterian Church and Sunday School, Berkeley (1908–10); Kings Daughters Home for Incurables, Oakland (1908–12); Asilomar YWCA Conference Center, Pacific Grove, CA (1913–28); Honolulu YWCA buildings, Honolulu (1925–26); Berkeley Women's City Club (1929–30); Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California (1919–39); Wyntoon, Shasta, California (1933–41).

After the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, Julia Morgan had the formidable task of rebuilding the 600-room Fairmont Hotel. When the foreman was asked by a reporter if the building were truly in the charge of a woman, he answered that it was in the charge of an architect whose name happened to be Julia Morgan. The foreman's response exemplified the respect inspired by the young, slim, 5' tall architect.

Julia Morgan was born in 1872 in San Francisco, California, the daughter of Charles Bill Morgan and Eliza Parmelee Morgan . Her interest in architecture probably began during her trips to New York, where her Parmelee grandparents lived. Albert Parmelee, a self-made millionaire from an old Virginia family, had made his fortune on the cotton market before the Civil War. It was Albert who had financed the Morgan house and furnishings in Oakland, California, and who often sent his daughter Eliza money to travel on the new transcontinental train for visits to the East Coast. In 1878, Charles lost money in a gold mine, and Eliza took her children to spend a year in New York. Julia was six and eager for school; instead, she remained housebound the entire winter with scarlet fever, followed by recurrent ear infections. During that period, she developed a strong friendship with her cousin Lucy Thornton and Lucy's husband Pierre Lebrun, a successful New York architect. It also may have been during this confinement that Morgan formed some of the ideas that would dominate her architectural philosophy. Her buildings usually included tall windows which allowed plenty of sunshine to fall on warm, wood floors, and her rooms conveyed a sense of space and airiness which may have been the perspective she missed most as she looked at the winter cityscape from her window. Back in California, she applied herself in school, studying math and science. She loved to solve problems. By the time she graduated from high school in 1890, Morgan had convinced her parents that she should attend the University of California at Berkeley. They agreed, on condition that her brother Avery escort her to and from school. Since Berkeley did not offer an architectural program, Morgan enrolled in the College of Engineering.

In her second year, Morgan joined Kappa Alpha Theta; the 27 members of the sorority rented a house near the university. These young women formed a supportive network, and several would later become Morgan's clients. At Berkeley, she met Phoebe Hearst , a philanthropist who used her millions to promote education and the arts and to improve the status of women. Hearst became an enthusiastic promoter of the aspiring architect. In Morgan's senior year, as a star student in Bernard Maybeck's geometry class, she joined an advanced seminar at Maybeck's home where he employed the students in a building project. This was her first hands-on experience with architecture. Maybeck had studied at the acclaimed École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, as had Pierre Lebrun, and both men encouraged Morgan to do the same. She set out for Paris in 1896.

Upon her arrival, she began to prepare for the notoriously difficult entrance competition, studying French and the metric system while also apprenticing at one of the all-male ateliers (workshops) run by architects. She most feared the formidable oral examination but passed on her third try. Out of nearly 400 applicants, only 30 were accepted, and Morgan, who ranked 13th, was able to enroll in the department of architecture due to a slight administrative oversight. Women were not specifically barred from that discipline, but only because no one had anticipated that a woman would apply. Once in, she had to cope with the pressures of meeting deadlines. Sara Holmes Boutelle notes that students delivered their precious drawings in handcarts they pushed through the streets of Paris as late as midnight.

After receiving her certificate from the École des Beaux-Arts in 1902, Morgan returned to California. The following year, she had an opportunity to test some of her newly acquired knowledge. Phoebe Hearst had donated money toward a building program at Berkeley and had asked John Galen Howard, the architect, to hire Morgan. She was put in charge of building the Greek amphitheater, which had to be completed before the graduation ceremony that was scheduled to take place only a few months later. The small-boned, 31-year-old woman in wire-rimmed glasses introduced her suspicious workers to reinforced concrete, a new technique she had studied at the Beaux-Arts. The outdoor theater was ready in time—except for the outer wall, which was still damp. President Theodore Roosevelt delivered the graduation address, unaware of the purpose of the colorful banners that had been sewn together at the last minute and draped over the back wall. Morgan used reinforced concrete again on her next assignment, which was the construction of a bell tower for Mills College in Oakland. Those who questioned her new methods were amazed when, after the devastating earthquake of 1906, the 72-foot-high tower remained standing and intact. As a result of this early success, the owners of the Fairmont Hotel hired her to rebuild their gutted luxury hotel, which had burned down after the 1906 quake; they hoped that her Beaux-Arts and engineering background would produce a handsome and strong structure. Morgan did not disappoint them, and the renovated hotel opened on time to commemorate the first anniversary of the disaster. The achievement was the more admirable considering that she was working from a shack, her own recently opened office having also burned down. (Morgan's decision to open her own office had been hastened when she over-heard her boss, John Galen Howard, boast that he had hired a talented designer whom he paid next to nothing because she was a woman. He never forgave her for leaving him and, for 25 years, used his influence to keep her from working on Berkeley buildings. Although this might have destroyed other young architects, Morgan had no time to hold a grudge.)

A pale, blonde-haired woman, weighing about 100 pounds, Morgan possessed a frail appearance that belied a will of steel and enormous energy which enabled her to work on several projects at the same time. Her only hobby was Chinese calligraphy. Hating to draw attention to herself, she sought refuge in anonymity, and her

desire to avoid public attention became almost an obsession after a botched inner-ear surgery. During the operation, the doctor accidentally cut a facial nerve which left one side of her face partially paralyzed. While she had always shunned press interviews, after the operation she excused herself by claiming that it was inappropriate for an architect to be asymmetrical.

Morgan was completely at ease in her professional environment, however. She wore comfortable shoes, silk blouses and suits with big pockets that bulged with pads and pencils, and did not carry a purse that might have hampered her in climbing scaffolds and 100-foot ladders. After the surgery, which also affected her sense of balance, she still climbed to the tops of buildings to inspect the on-going work, but she held onto a worker. Known as tough but fair and compassionate, Morgan could rip out a poorly installed fixture on the spot, but she could also praise a well-made tile or a beautifully carved door. When one of her favorite wood carvers refused to come to San Simeon to work on a later project because he did not want to leave his family, she built him a workshop in San Francisco and allowed him to ship his work.

My buildings will be my legacy.

—Julia Morgan

Although Morgan refused any political involvements and never called herself a suffragist, she hired many women and supported others with scholarships. She herself benefited greatly from the rising women's movement: a number of her commissions came from women professionals who were feminists, and, with many unskilled young women joining the work force, she received numerous contracts to build recreational, educational and residential buildings for women. Having shared a house with other women gave Morgan a special sensitivity. When she designed a YWCA (Young Women's Christian Association) building in San Francisco, she suggested including one or two private dining rooms with attached kitchens so the women could entertain their guests. A board member reminded Morgan that she was designing rooms for working girls who did not need to be spoiled. Morgan answered that, on the contrary, these were the women who needed to be spoiled. She also added a sewing room, a beauty parlor and a laundry room. When furnishing rooms, Morgan chose furniture that was simple yet elegant, but never stark. Her advice on buying chairs was to appoint a committee of three, one short, one tall, and one overweight, to try them out first. Of the national chain of YWCAs that Morgan built, the Oakland and Honolulu ones are still used today. Her Asilomar, a YWCA center, is now a California State monument, and, along with the Hearst Castle, is one of the two best revenue sources in the park system.

Located in Pacific Grove, Asilomar is a remarkable embodiment of the English Arts and Crafts movement. In 1913, Phoebe Hearst asked Morgan to design a conference center for the YWCA, to be built on 30 acres of coastal land she had donated to the association. The result is an exceptional group of buildings made of stone and redwood shingles that blends with the surrounding trees. Asilomar exemplifies Morgan's underlying belief that a structure should seem to grow from the site. Designed as a reaction to industrialism, this concept had originated in England with William Morris.

Making money or becoming famous did not play a part in Morgan's decision to take on a commission, but solving a problem did. In 1908, she accepted a contract to build St. John's Presbyterian Church, on a budget that allowed her no more than two dollars per square foot. She pondered the problem and finally came up with a spectacular design that included inexpensive but attractive redwood walls, a slanted floor and such high quality acoustics that the church is used for concerts and theatrical events.

Over the years, Morgan acquired a reputation as a "client's architect," and developed an uncanny ability to interpret her clients' dreams. She never refused a job because it was too small or too large; her commissions ranged from designing a playhouse for her taxi driver's daughters to creating a castle for one of the most eccentric millionaires in America. When she agreed to work for William Randolph Hearst, she knew it would involve commuting 300 miles on weekends. She did not know it would involve a 20-year commitment, lasting from 1919 to 1939.

When Phoebe Hearst died from the influenza epidemic that ravaged the world after World War I, Morgan lost both a friend and her most influential patron. In 1919, after his mother's death, William Randolph Hearst approached Morgan with his plan to build a "Jappo-Swisso bungalow" on top of a hill on some 270,000 acres of land he owned in San Luis Obispo County. The newspaper publisher and millionaire art collector was disillusioned with New York politics and planning to move back to California. The "bungalow" turned out to be a cross between a cathedral and a royal palace, and the ranch grew to look like a medieval village that had swallowed a Roman pool. Eventually, when Hearst brought a herd of Montana buffaloes to his "Enchanted Hill," Morgan added a zoo to her blueprints. The zoo required space for the daily truckloads of ice for the polar bears. When she came from San Francisco to work at San Simeon three weekends a month, she rode the night train, took a taxi from the station to San Simeon and, until a road was built, climbed to the top of the as-yet treeless hill by a horse-drawn carriage. When cars were able to drive to the "Casa Grande" (Main House), she referred to Hearst's cars as "guest machines."

Morgan's job was to encompass her exuberant and volatile patron's dream and to incorporate in a single project a collection of treasures he had begun collecting as a boy. Phoebe once remarked that when her son "felt badly," he would go out and buy something. Had she judged from the stocked warehouses, Morgan must have concluded that William felt bad rather often. Some of the items included an ancient sarcophagus, choir stalls from European monasteries, Venetian windows, Arab lanterns, religious art, and such modern objects as a pool table and working toilets. Few architects could have put up with the whims of a capricious man who had workers install a stone fireplace only to rip it out (along with a wall and part of a ceiling) and have it moved elsewhere, and then put back in its original place. The construction of the breathtaking Neptune pool involved pouring several tons of concrete vertically up a hill to create a retaining wall capable of holding more than a million gallons of water. Twice, Hearst decided to enlarge the structure and the wall had to be destroyed.

Morgan used humor, patience and professionalism in dealing with her client, and the Hearst Castle evolved as an extraordinary embodiment of a dream. The project easily could have been a disaster; instead, in Morgan's hands it turned out to be an engineering feat and an aesthetic triumph. When Hearst died in 1951, Morgan lost a client and a friend of three decades.

Her siblings were very important to Morgan, who never married and had no children. She always felt somewhat responsible for her younger brothers. Her sister Emma had become a lawyer, but brothers Parmelee, Avery and Sam inherited their father's easy charm rather than their mother's and sisters' ambition. Avery was satisfied working for Julia and happiest when she bought a car and he drove her around, as she never learned to drive. Sam, the youngest and favorite of the family, became a firefighter and died at the age of 26, when his fire truck toppled a building and he was crushed to death. Sam's death and, later on, Avery's death devastated Morgan. The three Morgan women led independent lives but maintained a good relationship, and Julia watched anxiously as her widowed mother's health deteriorated. Oakland was no longer a safe place to live, but their mother refused to move. When it became clear that Eliza could not be alone, Julia built a house for her, next to her sister's. On Thanksgiving Day, the family met at Emma's, and after dinner the daughters took their mother to her new house. She was confused at first, but once she saw the bedroom she felt at home, for Morgan had made an exact replica of her mother's former bedroom. With the new arrangement, Eliza was able to keep her independence while Emma watched over her.

With the death of William Randolph Hearst, Morgan lost her desire to work. She closed her office and asked a colleague to burn her blueprints. Two years later, at the age of 81, she was mugged and hospitalized. The shock brought on a series of small strokes, which forced her to remain confined to her apartment for the last four years of her life. She died in 1957.

Although the Hearst Castle is Julia Morgan's best-known achievement, its eccentric flamboyance is not typical of her work. She felt at ease with a great diversity of styles: classical, gothic, Renaissance, Mediterranean, Spanish, Moorish, half-timbered English, Arts and Crafts and even Chinese. After World War II, a new architectural trend developed, the International Style; she disliked the cold, alienating, slick look of these new buildings that scorned historical references. She did not have a unique, rigid, style but instead submerged herself in her clients' visions and gave those visions substance. Her buildings evolved from a site, and were rooted in the traditions and needs of the people who would use them. The harmony of her designs came from a careful consideration of nature and the human element.


Aidala, Thomas R. Hearst Castle: San Simeon. NY: Harrison House, 1981.

Boutelle, Sara Holmes. Julia Morgan, Architect. NY: Abbeville Press, 1988.

Longstreth, Richard W. Julia Morgan: Architect. Berkeley, CA: Architectural Heritage Association, 1977.

Swanberg, W.A. Citizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst. NY: Scribner, 1961.

Wadsworth, Ginger. Julia Morgan: Architect of Dreams. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner, 1990.

White, Anthony G. Julia Morgan, Architect: A Selected Bibliography. Architecture Series: Vance Bibliographies, June 1990.

Claire Hsu Accomando , author of Love and Rutabaga: A Remembrance of the War Years (St. Martin's Press, 1993)

About this article

Morgan, Julia (1872–1957)

Updated About content Print Article