Julia Morgan Architect

Turn-of-the-Century Trailblazer: Julia Morgan


Carrying on with our survey of Women in Architecture for Women’s History Month, today we recognize pioneering architect, Julia Morgan.  A trailblazer who stormed the Ecole des Beaux-Arts before they even allowed women to take their entrance exam, she practiced in California for five decades and launched the careers of many other women designers.

Oddly, perhaps for a woman designer born in the Victorian era, one of Morgan’s specialties were opulent and functional swimming pools like the one the sketch above, designed for private home owners, university groups, YWCAs and cities.

Julia Morgan was the child of wealthy west coast family that encouraged its children to pursue their education and interests.  Her younger sister, Emma, graduated from UC Berkeley and then went to law school, practicing along side her husband. Julia enrolled at Berkeley, herself,  in 1890.  The west coast had no school of architecture so she studied engineering (the only woman in her cohort).

Julia Morgan architectMorgan studied under Bernard Maybeck who encouraged her to try for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, although it did not, at that time accept women students.  Attending the Ecole was not automatic, nor was a qualification from it easy to achieve.  As an aspirant, she studied and worked in Paris (learning French and getting used to converting all her measurements to metric) and had to rate at least 30th (out of nearly four hundred candidates) to pass the entrance exam.  She then had to accumulate 26 wins in cutthroat intra-student competitions in order to graduate.

Work by and for Women

One of Morgan’s first commissions on her return to California was a new headquarters for Kappa Alpha Theta sorority.  Julia and her sister had both been sisters and residents  of the sorority during their college days, since Berkley had no women’s dormitory.  San Francisco powerbroker and philanthropist Phoebe Hearst funded many projects in support of women students at Berkley including the Women’s Gymnasium (pool pictured below) but when she offered to pay for women’s dorm, the president turned her down saying,

“women in groups tend to become hysterical.”


julia morgan architect

During Morgan’s long career she mentored and provided work for many young women designers, a practice that was not always approved of by her colleagues.  In the early 20’s one of her long time employees wrote a long and critical letter complaining of hiring based on “personality or sentiment” but then getting down to his particular grievance – that he wanted to work among “hustlers” but instead was doomed by Morgan’s hiring practices to train up girls instead.

“There are no reasons why girls should follow up Architecture in preference to marriage, but there are many good reasons why they should do just the reverse.”

He didn’t list any of those “many” reasons but he did follow up his argument by telling Morgan that “you cannot quote yourself as an examples because I firmly believe that you are one in centuries.” A nice compliment, sure, but also a pretty insulting argument.

In addition to her mentorship, Morgan continued to design for women’s organizations, designing women’s hotels, the Berkeley Women’s City club and many YWCA buildings in California and Hawaii.

Residential Architect – Designer of Homes 

Although she did design and oversee the construction of many similar civic buildings, much of her practice was in the design of comfortable contemporary houses – both modest and grand.  Consequently, she risked the fate of many residential architects, that their work can easily go unnoticed and unmatched against the more heroic designers of her day.  She might have passed into total obscurity were it not for one commission.

Morgan and Hearst: the Dreamhouse Team

Her comisisons for one family prevented residential obscurity and have kept Morgan on the architectural map to this day.

In addition to hiring Morgan to design her pet civic projects, Mrs. Hearst called on Morgan to improve her country estate the Hacienda del Pozo de Verona.  Through Phoebe, Morgan met her son, newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, who became a lifelong friend and perpetual client.  Together they dreamed up and, over the course of decades, built his famous desert get away San Simeon.  To give just a taste of the scale and opulence of the complex – this is the multi-chambered roman pool concealed beneath a set of tennis courts.

julia morgan architect

Hearst was perpetually short on budget (if a million dollars a year during the depression can be called short) for his over the top schemes and usually occupied with business on the East coast but trusted Morgan to manage and oversee everything, sending ideas, plans, and models back and forth by telegram and trans-atlantic railroad.  She also travelled to the building site at San Simeon “nearly every weekend from 1920 to 1938.”  Although it was not common practice for architects at the time, Morgan oversaw many aspects of construction for Hearst, corresponding with art dealers and paying contractors to keep the project running while he was away from the project.

By the late 1930’s she (and Hearst) had shifted focus to the theoretically more modest forest retreat (on 50,000 acres), Wyntoon, designed in the style of (extremely grandiose) Bavarian cottages.  Again they collaborated closely to create a fantastic dreamscape that persists today as a legacy for both of them.

A Delayed Legacy

Morgan is only now starting to regain the prominence she should always have had for her leadership and pioneering spirit.  She was so unconvinced of her own prominence in history that she destroyed all her office paperwork when she retired in 1951, figuring that her clients all had their own copies and no one else would be interested.  She did have confidence in her designs, however.

“My buildings,” she said, “will be my legacy. They will speak for me long after I’m gone.”

Note: early history of Morgan’s life taken from the excellent biography, Julia Morgan Architect (1995) by Sarah Holmes Boutele.