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Monday, October 27, 2014

Julia Morgan

Copyright, Jim Lane
One of Julia Morgan's most lasting works, her makeshift office at San Simeon.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Hearst's Humble Habitat.
One of the "must-see" items on our travel itinerary this spring as we romped around the outskirts of the American West was the Hearst Castle, known as San Simeon, located on the rugged California coastal highway (U.S. 1) roughly halfway between L.A. and San Francisco. Built over a broad span of years during the first half of the 20th-century, perhaps the most unique aspect about the mountain top of unique prospects is the fact that the whole affair was designed by a woman, Julia Morgan. Actually, it might be more correct to say it was designed by both Morgan and the wealthy newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst. He inspired it, she made it happen. Her on-site office (top), a non-descript shed out back is still there. She promised to have it torn down when the job was completed. Hearst died before that happened so the demolition never took place.

I have, however, written at length regarding San Simeon (click on the link above). In doing so, I barely mention Julia Morgan in passing. This time around, I'll barely mentioned Hearst in passing. Though Hearst was Morgan's richest and most consistent client, San Simeon was, perhaps, a little more than a hobby, for Morgan, but it was not far removed from moonlighting. By the time she met and went to work for the spendthrift tycoon, she was already a bright, hardworking, sought-after architect with her own architectural firm in San Francisco. From a creative point of view, I'm sure she found Hearst and his architectural whims very exciting and no doubt as frustrating as they were fulfilling. On the other hand, having to travel more than two hundred miles south on weekends to supervise construction of the massive undertaking, must have seemed something of a nuisance at times. Although he may have thought so, Hearst was not Morgan's only client...far from it.
Julia Morgan, ca. 1950s.
Julia Morgan was born in 1872, the second child of Charles Bill Morgan and the wealthy heiress Eliza Woodland Parmelee (a fortune made in cotton). Morgan was an ambitious mining engineer bent on making his fortune in the California gold fields. He didn't. The family ended up living in Oakland, on a stipend from Eliza's father. Julia's mother managed the money and ran the household, serving as a strong role model for her daughter as a competent business woman. When old man Parmelee died in 1880, his widow moved to Oakland with all their money, taking up residence with the Morgans, proving to be every bit as strong a female presence as that of her daughter. When Julia's mother and grandmother urged her to have a debutant party, the equally headstrong Julia resisted. She insisted a woman should put her career ahead of her marriage prospects. She headed for the University of California in Berkley to study civil engineering. She never did get around to marriage.
Julia Morgan was an outstanding more ways that one...she was the only woman in her class and the first of her gender in California to graduate and become a licensed engineer. Julia's mentor and greatest supporter was the eccentric California architect, Bernard Maybeck, whom Morgan greatly admired and whom proved to be her strongest influence. Maybeck encouraged Julia to go to Paris and study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts where she was promptly refused entry into their architecture program--she was a woman, after all. A year later, however, in 1897, the school was forced by popular female demand to open its doors to women. Even at that, her path was not easy. She flunked an exam (by a few points) for a second year of study, then spent two years being tutored before being admitted for an additional year's study, only to run up against a rule disallowing women over thirty to attend classes. Nonetheless, she managed to obtain her certificate by designing a palatial theater for a wealthy supporter of the school. In 1902, she became the first female architect to graduate from the prestigious French academy.
The Hearst Greek Theater, University of California, Berkley, 1903-04, Julia Morgan.
Upon returning to California, Morgan went to work for an architectural firm busy at the time designing a master plan for the University of California. There she gained early experience designing the decorative elements for several buildings on the Berkley campus, including the Hearst Mining Building and after that, the Hearst Greek Theater, which first brought her to the attention of Hearst himself. She came highly recommended to Hearst by her boss as an excellent draughtsman whom he had to pay almost nothing because she was a woman. Morgan saved her "almost nothing" and began her moonlighting habit in order to put away the means to open her own office. In 1904, she chalked up another first, becoming the first woman in California to become a licensed architect.
The Margaret Carnegie Library, Mills College, Oakland, 1905, Julia Morgan
El Campanile, Mills College,
Oakland, California, 1904,
Julia Morgan.
Among Morgan's first projects was work for Mills College, a campanile and later the Margaret Carnegie Library (named for Andrew Carnegie's daughter). Despite being off to a good start, perhaps Julia Morgan's greatest asset was here unwitting sense of timing. She was licensed, established, and a practicing architect when, on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, tragedy struck--the San Francisco earthquake. The existing architecture shook, some of it came down, and a massive fire consumed much of what didn't. Suddenly, experienced architects and engineers were worth the weight in gold (though, for the petite Miss Morgan, wasn't all that much). The huge Fairmont Hotel (below) perched atop San Francisco's Nob Hill, was brand new, awaiting it's grand opening at the time. Fortunately, it survived the quake with only minor damage, but was heavily damaged in the ensuing fire. Julia Morgan was hired to design and oversee the reconstruction of what was to become the city's finest hotel. In what's considered, even today, as something of an architectural miracle, and in no small part due to Morgan's efforts, the hotel reopened, exactly one year to the day after the quake. (Incidentally, almost 40 years later, the United Nations Charter was signed in the hotel's Gold Room, which had been designed and refurbished by Morgan after the fire.)

The Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill as reconstructed by Morgan following the 1906 earthquake and fire.
Notice all the empty lots in the area resulting from the fire  .
San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel today, over a hundred years after Julia Morgan "saved" it.

Julia Morgan's Fairmont Hotel Gold Room, birthplace of the United Nations.
The Bavarian styled Wyntoon House, restored
by Morgan, once owned by Hearst's mother.
Although Julia Morgan became best known for her collaboration with William Randolph Hearst in building his "castle," following their first introduction in 1903, Hearst channeled several other projects her way. Among them was, the Los Angeles Examiner Building around 1914; Wyntoon (left), an estate Hearst inherited from his mother, which included a castle and "Bavarian village" of four villas all on 50,000 acres near Mount Shasta in Northern California; as well as a Mission-style ranch house Hearst called the Hacienda near Jolon, California. Morgan was, at the time of Hearst's death in 1951, also working on plans for Babicora, Hearst's 1,625,000-acre cattle ranch and retreat near Chihuahua, Mexico.

Morgan's Honolulu YWCA (the three-story portion only, not the high-rise in back).
Julia Morgan's own home in San
Francisco--two structures, one
in which she lived, the other, a
duplex (on the left), she rented.
In addition to being Hearst's favorite architect, Julia Morgan also had a long-standing professional relationship with the YWCA starting with a recommendation from Hearst's mother which resulted in her first effort in Pacific Grove near Monterey, California. Later she designed YWCAs in Utah, Arizona, and Hawaii. Morgan's lifetime list of buildings number around 700 including several houses in the San Francisco, Berkley, and Oakland (her own can be seen a right), a number of churches, a theater named for her, and numerous Mills College buildings. With the death of her most important client in 1951, Morgan was able to go into retirement. She died in 1957 at the age of eighty-five. After her death, she was inducted into the California Hall of Fame (2008), and just this year (2014), Julia Morgan was awarded a gold medal by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for her lifetime of achievement and excellence, allowing her yet another "first woman" distinction.

The Hearst Hacienda ranch house near Jolon, California, (now a hotel) designed by Julia Morgan in 1930. It's not San Simeon, but then, it's only a day's ride by horseback from her most unforgettable effort.

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