By Julia Donoho and Alexandra Lange with Karen McNeill
Julia Morgan (1872–1957) was a woman of many firsts: one of the first female engineering majors at the University of California, Berkeley, the first woman to pass the entrance exam in architecture for the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (and the school’s first female graduate), and the first licensed woman architect in California. Over the course of her 46-year career, Morgan designed over seven hundred buildings, primarily in California, and is best known for her work on Hearst Castle, publisher William Randolph Hearst’s spectacular estate in San Simeon, California, now a National Historic Landmark. In 2014, Morgan was posthumously awarded the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in recognition of her pathbreaking career and dynamic buildings, the first woman to be awarded the medal in its 107-year history.
Early life and education
Morgan was born in San Francisco on January 20, 1872.11For an introduction to Julia Morgan’s life, see Sara Holmes Boutelle’s pioneering study Julia Morgan, Architect (New York: Abbeville Press, 1988) and Victoria Kastner’s book Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect (San Francisco: Chronical Books, 2022). Her father, Charles Bill Morgan, sailed from the East Coast around the tip of South America to California in 1865. A business man, he saw the American West as the place to make his fortune. Four years later, he brought his bride, Eliza Woodland Parmelee, out from Brooklyn, New York. Morgan and her four siblings grew up in a large Victorian house in Oakland, California, paid for by Eliza’s family fortune. Her father, Albert Osias Parmelee, made his money in cotton futures before the Civil War, and Eliza used her inheritance after her father’s death to build the Morgan home. The Parmelee fortune, along with a supportive family, enabled Julia and her younger sister, Emma Morgan North, to pursue career paths that were unusual for women at the time.
Julia and Emma both attended the University of California, Berkeley. Emma Morgan ultimately graduated from law school in San Francisco, married a fellow lawyer, and maintained a lifelong membership in the California Bar. Julia Morgan enrolled in the civil engineering program (there was no architecture school at Berkeley at that time). After her first year she lived in the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority house with fellow female students, employing a cook-housekeeper. Throughout Morgan’s career, women’s organizations proved to be an important source of clients and moral support.
After Morgan received her bachelor of science degree from Berkeley in 1894, she joined Bernard Maybeck’s atelier, serving as a draftsperson. Maybeck is best known for his design of the Berkeley First Church of Christ, Scientist (1910), a defining building of the first Bay Area style of architecture, embracing nature, craftsmanship, and local materials like redwood.22Bernard Maybeck studied at the École des Beaux Arts, 1882–86, and arrived in Berkeley in 1894 to become the first professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. He was awarded the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in Architecture in 1951. Maybeck encouraged Morgan, as he had many of his male students, to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, then regarded by many Americans as the preeminent architecture school in the world. She took the suggestion.
Upon her arrival in Paris, Morgan met Katharine C. Budd and Fay Kellogg, two American women also pursuing an interest in architecture.33Julia Morgan, letters to Lucy and Pierre LeBrun, various dates in 1896, Special Collections, Robert E. Kennedy Library, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (henceforth, cited as Cal Poly San Luis Obispo). Budd and Kellogg had found a sympathetic mentor in Marcel Perouse de Monclos, and he accepted Morgan in his atelier when Kellogg returned to the United States. He was the only architect in Paris at the time who opened his doors to women and was himself married to an American woman. Kellogg had unsuccessfully lobbied the École to allow her to apply for admission, but her efforts helped pave the way for Morgan to study there. Many years later, in 1918, the National Board of the YWCA would hire the three women to design Hostess Houses on military bases, dividing the country into three regions with Morgan designing in the west, Kellogg in the south, and Budd in the north.
In 1897, the French government changed the rules to allow women to compete for admission to the École des Beaux-Arts in painting and sculpture. “They did not say anything about the Department of Architecture, either way,” Morgan later recalled in a letter, “it not entering their heads that there might be women applicants.”44Julia Morgan, letter to Aurelia Reinhardt, President of Mills College, September 10, 1917, Mills College Archives, Oakland, as quoted by Boutelle, Julia Morgan, 29. After gathering the necessary letters and documents, finally, she was allowed to proceed, making her way through the rigorous process of apprenticeship and design competitions required for admission.55Bernard Maybeck wrote a provocative letter on her behalf emphasizing gender. Bernard Maybeck, letter to the École des Beaux-Arts, April 29, 1897, Special Collections, Robert E. Kennedy Library, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. After three failed attempts and a change in ateliers—Grand Prix de Rome winner François-Benjamin Chaussemiche eventually took Morgan under his wing—she passed the entrance exam in October 1898 and became the first woman to enroll at the École des Beaux-Arts in architecture that November.
Students at the École were judged through anonymous competitions, and during her studies Morgan fared very well, receiving three medals and twenty-six mentions, as well as the second-place medal for the prestigious Godeboeuf Competition. As a woman, Morgan lacked the mentorship of male upperclassman, and instead relied on the support of some of the mothers of American male students at the École, who even helped her render her projects.66Morgan especially received support in Paris from Victoria Runyon Brown, the mother of Arthur Brown Jr., who had studied with Morgan at Berkeley and was also attending the École des Beaux-Arts. We are indebted to Jeffrey Tilman for this information, which comes from letters from Victoria Brown to her husband, Arthur Brown Sr., who remained in Oakland. The letters, which are not published, are in the possession of Margaret Jensen, Arthur Brown Jr.’s granddaughter, in San Diego, California. In February 1902, weeks after her thirtieth birthday, she qualified for the Certificat d’Études, the first woman to receive the degree.77Maybeck, in fact, never received a Certificat d’Études. Although Morgan gained all the points necessary for the École’s final degree, the Diplome, before her thirtieth birthday, she did not have sufficient time to design the final project required to receive it. In any case, the distinction of D.P.L.G. would have had minimal value to practice in the United States.
Morgan’s stay in Europe lasted six years from 1896 to 1902, a period of fervent change in art and architecture in Paris, and one that challenged the academicism and historical styles of the École itself. Morgan was there for the Paris Expo of 1900, the opening of the Paris metro, and the rise of numerous iron- and-glass buildings throughout the city. She traveled widely throughout Europe, filling her sketchbooks with drawings and watercolors of the buildings and landscapes she saw. At the École she learned the traditional modes of architectural representation; on her own, she discovered how to draw freehand and capture quickly her impressions of a building.88As late as the 1930s, Chaussemiche sent Morgan postcards with photos of many images of buildings similar to those she sketched during her time in France. Bernard Chaussemiche, postcards to Julia Morgan, 1935, Special Collections, Robert E. Kennedy Library, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
In 1902, Morgan returned to Oakland with her degree and worked for two years with the Berkeley campus architect, John Galen Howard, before applying for state licensure in 1904 and establishing her own architecture practice. Contemporary observers were struck by Morgan’s professional style; one described her surprise at finding “a small, slender young woman, with something so Quakerish about her that I felt all preconceived notions come tumbling out of my head” in charge of the reconstruction of the Fairmont Hotel.99Jane Armstrong, “Woman Architect Who Helped Build the Fairmont Hotel,” The Architect and Engineer of California 10, no. 3 (October 1907): 70. Morgan avoided the flamboyant, artistic dress of her mentor Maybeck, instead creating her own version of the male architect’s uniform, with a skirt rather than trousers. Elinor Richey offers this description of Morgan’s practical dress at this time: “Eschewing a regular purse, which would encumber her hands, she utilized suit pockets to carry necessaries.”1010Elinor Richey, “Julia Morgan, Architect with Empathy,” Eminent Women of the West (Berkeley, Calif.: Howell-North Books, 1975), 254.
Morgan benefitted from the increasing presence of women in public life, from philanthropy to education to politics. As biographer Sara Boutelle noted, “The networks that women had developed while campaigning for abolition, temperance and women’s suffrage had made them aware of, and eager to hire, other women with diverse skills, including architects.”1111Boutelle, Julia Morgan, 83.
Accordingly, many of Morgan’s early residential commissions came from fellow members of Kappa Alpha Theta. Morgan also developed a decades-long relationship with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), and went on to design at least thirty buildings for the YWCA in at least seventeen locations, mostly in California, but also in Hawaii, Washington, and Utah.
After just a year in practice, Morgan was hired by Mills College, a women’s college in Oakland, to design a bell tower to provide a focal point on the central grass oval of the growing campus. Morgan utilized both her engineering and architectural training to create the groundbreaking structure. El Campanil, a 72-foot-high reinforced concrete tower in the red-tile roof Mission style, was the first free-standing structure of its kind in the United States and the first multi-story reinforced concrete tower west of the Mississippi. Designed in 1903, it was built at the same time as Auguste and Gustave Perret’s pioneering apartment building at 25 bis Rue Franklin in Paris; both structures used new patented reinforced-concrete systems.1212The Perrets used the recently developed Hennibique system of béton armé, whereas Morgan used the Ransome system, which had been employed typically on factories and bridges, but also on two campus buildings at Stanford—a two-story museum and a three-story dormitory. Ernest Ransome was the eponymous developer of the Ransome system. His son, Bernard, was the builder of El Campanil. Despite her building’s innovative design and pioneering use of concrete, Morgan encountered professional sexism in the Bay Area: the contractor persuaded the project sponsor to give Morgan second billing for El Campanil at the dedication of the structure. Nonetheless, the tower’s demonstrated seismic strength led to changes in California’s building code, and the structure has endured for well over one hundred years.1313San Francisco Municipal Code, 1904, 1907. The 1904 code only allowed the usage of concrete in building foundations; however, within four months of the quake, and after El Campanil and other Ransome structures’ survival intact, the code was changed to permit reinforced concrete for vertical and horizontal structural elements. Advertisements in Architect and Engineer following the quake promoted reinforced concrete as the best material to withstand earthquakes and fires.
On April 18, 1906, disaster struck. The Great San Francisco Earthquake and subsequent fires destroyed more than 80 percent of the city’s building stock, including Morgan’s first office at 456 Montgomery Street. Morgan benefitted from the city’s need for architects and, most urgently, for architects familiar with quake-resistant reinforced concrete construction. El Campanil, which survived unscathed, attested to Morgan’s ability to meet the need. The owners of the luxurious downtown Fairmont Hotel, which had been days from opening, came calling. Morgan delivered to them a rebuilt Fairmont within in a year while competing with the whole city for workmen and materials.
The hotel’s acclaimed reopening fueled the success of Morgan’s practice. She moved her offices to the Merchant’s Exchange Building in San Francisco’s financial district, and remained there until her retirement at age 79. She received a wide range of commissions. Along with churches, residential clubs, libraries, commercial buildings, schools, and warehouses, Morgan designed hundreds of houses, many in the Berkeley and Oakland hills, ranging in style from shingled redwood to Venetian Gothic, Tudor to Arts and Crafts, and Mission Revival to Neoclassical. In her residential work, Morgan emphasized comfort, with rooms shaped for specific activities and family life. “She could do any style, castles for Hearst up at Mount Shasta, Italianate, stucco, little cottages and Craftsman buildings,” Lynn Forney McMurray, the daughter of Morgan’s longtime secretary, Lillian Forney, and her goddaughter, told the New York Times. “Her houses were built from the inside out; she thought about how the people were to live. That was what was important to her.”1414Quoted in Alexandra Lange, “Overlooked No More: Julia Morgan, Pioneering Female Architect,” New York Times, March 11, 2019, A18.
The Berkeley house Morgan designed for doctors Elsie Mitchell and Clara Williams in 1916 exemplifies the important role of residential architecture in Morgan’s body of work. Featuring simple massing, extensive use of redwood inside and out, exposed structural elements, and a relatively open floor plan, the house typifies the traditional Bay Area style. The house also fostered Mitchell and Williams’s very modern lives. Its office allowed them to practice medicine at home, while the attached garage—an unusual feature of houses at this time because car engines were prone to explode—provided quick access to the car in the event of a medical emergency. While the two women maintained separate bedrooms, a shared dressing room connected their rooms, an unusual configuration that suited Morgan’s clients.1515Karen McNeill has speculated that the two women may have been “romantic partners.” See her essay “Gender, Race, and Class in the Work of Julia Morgan,” Forum Journal 32, no. 2 (December 2018): 32.
Philanthropist and advocate for women Phoebe Apperson Hearst began a lifelong interest in Morgan’s career when the two women’s paths crossed in Paris. Upon Morgan’s return to California, Hearst hired the young architect to remodel Hacienda del Pozo de Verona, her estate in Pleasanton, California, east of San Francisco. Morgan transformed it from an austere structure into an elaborate place for indoor-outdoor living with pergolas and portales, as well as a swimming pool.1616Charles F. Lummis, “The Greatest California Patio Home,” Country Life in America, October 1904, 533–40, 560.
A decade later, in 1913, Hearst worked with the Pacific Improvement Company, the real estate arm of the Southern Pacific Railroad, to secure with generous terms thirty acres of land on the Monterey Peninsula for the National Board of the YWCA. She persuaded the board to hire Morgan to create the first conference center in the country for the YWCA, and donated the funds for the first building, now known as Phoebe Hearst Social Hall. Over the next fifteen years, Morgan designed sixteen buildings for what came to be named Asilomar, or “refuge by the sea.” Her rustic Arts and Crafts style became synonymous with northern California architecture, featuring exposed wood trusses, redwood walls and stone fireplaces. In keeping with the informality of the style, Morgan retained the natural undulations of the landscape, grading only enough to level building sites. She specified California native plants, and unified the site with winding pathways.1717The facility is now used by the American Institute of Architects, California, for an International Design Conference. Their gatherings in Morgan’s Merrill Hall include a biannual assembly of professionals devoted to innovation in design.
Phoebe Hearst also introduced Morgan to the man who became her most significant client: Phoebe’s son, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Morgan’s first built commission for Hearst was the block-long Spanish Mission Revival Hearst Examiner Building (1913–15) in Los Angeles. In 1919, following his mother’s death, Hearst inherited the full Hearst estate and decided to build on the hilltop of the ranch at San Simeon. At first, his idea was a relatively modest bungalow, but soon a castle emerged, its scenographic, pan-European architecture studded with fragments of Spanish and Italian buildings Hearst purchased and shipped to California. During the first year working on Hearst Castle, Morgan negotiated her commission from 6 percent for architectural services to 8.5 percent to cover the costs of “running the job.” She was providing what today would be called “design-build” services and was responsible for managing workmen, artisans, material suppliers, and warehouses of artifacts.1818Julia Morgan, letters to William Randolph Hearst, December 15, 1920, and January 24, 1921, Special Collections, Robert E. Kennedy Library, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Over the next twenty-plus years, Morgan continued to work for Hearst, traveling most weekends by train and taxi from San Francisco to San Simeon, and working on various other Hearst estates such as Jolon and Wyntoon.
Morgan was known especially for her pool designs, reflecting her interest in promoting a healthy lifestyle. Besides her pool at Pleasanton, she designed swimming pools at Mills College, YWCA facilities, the Berkeley campus, and Hearst Castle. The arched aquatic area at the Berkeley Women’s City Club (1930) remains the most publicly accessible and demonstrates her expertise designing barrel-vaulted structures in reinforced concrete. The two swimming pool complexes, the Neptune (1924–36) and the indoor Roman Pool (1927–34), at San Simeon are her most elaborate designs. The Roman Pool, set under the castle’s two tennis courts, features a rich sequence of partially-underground spaces lit by skylights, alabaster lamps, and reflections of the blue-and-gold glass tiled walls on the water. Surrounded by marble copies of Greek and Roman statues, it evokes ancient Roman baths. However, it also employs less-visible modern features, made possible by Morgan’s knowledge of engineering: an oil-burning heating system and operable window assemblies, which allowed natural air to ventilate the space and dissipate the corrosive chemicals, minimizing their effects on building materials. This was a feature she would go on to use in other indoor pools as well.
Morgan’s practice slowed down during the Great Depression and nearly came to a halt during World War II. She retired in 1951, in declining health, and died at home in San Francisco on February 2, 1957. She was survived by her sister, a niece, a nephew, and his daughter. A few months after her death, when LIFE magazine published “A Unique Tour of San Simeon,” the story failed to mention Morgan. San FranciscoChronicle architecture critic Allan Temko wrote to the magazine to object: “This great Californian, who designed not only San Simeon, but more than 700 other buildings during her long career . . . deserves as high a place as Mary Cassatt in American painting, or Edith Wharton in American letters.”1919Allan Temko, “Letters to the Editors: A Tour of San Simeon,” LIFE, September 16, 1957, 10. Despite this admonition, for decades Morgan fell out of history and was little known beyond the areas where her buildings stood.
As architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne (who grew up in a Morgan house in the Berkeley hills) wrote in 2014, the profession “has tended to lionize only those architects who break new formal ground or dramatically cut stylistic ties from their predecessors.”2020Christopher Hawthorne, “Gold Medal: Julia Morgan,” Architect (June 23, 2014). Morgan’s Beaux-Arts training led her to make structurally rational, functional buildings in a range of historical styles, and to design everything from bungalows to castles. But she remained uninterested throughout her career in modern architecture, whether as style or dogma.2121As Walter Steilberg, who worked for Morgan from 1910 to 1920, wrote in a letter to the London Observer, “Her studies in civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley as well as her work in the École des Beaux-Arts led her to the conviction that architecture could not be made over in a few years to conform to the dictums of a few self-proclaimed geniuses [such as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright].” He also praised Morgan in this letter as the most talented of all the architects and engineers he had known or worked for in California. Walter Steilberg, letter to Ronald Brydon of the London Observer, circa May 1969 (in response to a letter dated April 23, 1969), Special Collections, Robert E. Kennedy Library, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Besides privileging formal invention, the American architecture establishment has also retained a bias toward architecture east of the Mississippi, and often has withheld recognition and opportunity from its women practitioners. Further, it must be noted that Morgan did not cultivate her legacy during her career: she did not write about her work and refused most requests for interviews.
Morgan’s posthumous reputation foundered because of all these issues. Yet indisputably her work embraced modern materials and a broader commitment to modernity; it reflected and fostered the growing diversity of women’s roles outside the home before World War II.
The rediscovery of Morgan’s work began in 1988, with the publication of Sara Boutelle’s biography, its author inspired by a tour of San Simeon she took in the 1970s. The biography covered the complete span of Morgan’s work, and traced her hundreds of clients and commissions beyond Hearst. As the New York Times obituary for Boutelle stated, “Until Ms. Boutelle published Julia Morgan, Architect (1988), little was known about Morgan (1872–1957) beyond the fact that she had designed William Randolph Hearst’s spectacular California castle, San Simeon.”2222William H. Honan, “Sara Boutelle, Architectural Historian, 90,” New York Times, May 29, 1999, B8.
The strength of Morgan’s achievement was finally confirmed when in 2014 she achieved another first: she became the first woman to be awarded the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal, the professional organization’s highest honor, more than fifty years after her death. Beverly Willis declared at the 2014 Gold Medal ceremony, “We women, who graduated in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, were denied a phenomenal role model, of an incredible designer and successful practitioner.”2323Beverly Willis, “Gold Medal Remarks,” AIA Convention, Chicago, Illinois, June 28, 2014.