Half a century ago, second-wave feminism swelled into a social tsunami that wrought profound changes in American life. Among them was a concerted effort to correct the underrepresentation of women in occupations that had systematically excluded them, including architecture. As the history of women in the building art began to be charted for the first time, the profession’s earliest female practitioners were also rediscovered and became the subject of serious study.
The mother of them all was Julia Morgan, the prolific San Francisco Bay Area architect who completed more than seven hundred buildings. Her impressive output—which in addition to many private residences (some four dozen in Berkeley alone) included many university and school buildings, several churches, and a host of commissions from the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA)—spanned a broad stylistic spectrum, from the distinctive Bay Area variant of the Arts and Crafts Movement to the Spanish Colonial Revival that became the favored architectural mode of early-twentieth-century California, and from Beaux-Arts Classicism to the regional Neoclassical subgenre now known as Hollywood Regency.
In an even more transcultural vein, Morgan designed several buildings for San Francisco’s Chinese American community in which she eschewed stereotypical chinoiserie and instead drew on her research into traditional Sinitic motifs. While her San Francisco Chinese YWCA of 1930–1932 (now the Chinese Historical Society Museum) incorporates several examples of fei yan (flying eaves)—the upcurved roof corners that are the most recognizable feature of indigenous Chinese construction—they are hardly its most dominant feature. The stolid redbrick exterior (an American variation on the characteristic blue-gray brick once commonly used in China) is pierced with cast-stone grilled windows and surmounted with crenellated cast-stone parapets based on ancient patterns. This dignified landmark of struggle, aspiration, assimilation, and ethnic pride is a quintessentially American monument to the immigrant experience.
Morgan’s wide aesthetic range sometimes makes it difficult to identify individual works as hers, unlike the inimitably detailed Japanesque bungalows of the California-based brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene, her close contemporaries. After you’ve seen a fair amount of her work, however, you recognize that certain buildings could only have been designed by her. Yet despite everything else that this tireless workaholic built, she is now best known for a single, extremely eccentric commission: the buildings of San Simeon, the 250,000-acre estate of the legendary newspaper proprietor William Randolph Hearst on the Pacific coast in San Luis Obispo County, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Erected from 1919 to 1947, this eclectic complex blithely juxtaposes several discordant historical styles—mainly Spanish Colonial and Imperial Roman, though the client first asked for “a Jappo-Swiss bungalow”—with the equanimity of a Hollywood back lot where multiple productions are shot side by side, a western here, a biblical epic there. (For two decades the long-married Hearst financed a movie studio, Cosmopolitan Productions, which made forty-six films that featured his lover, the actress Marion Davies.)
San Simeon’s principal feature is a Spanish Baroque pile formally named La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill) but familiarly known as Hearst Castle. Perched on an eminence with panoramic views of the ocean, this cathedral-like twin-spired mega-mansion encompasses 68,500 square feet, with thirty-eight bedrooms and forty-one bathrooms. (Although the castle is enormous by any standard, eleven other American residences at the time surpassed it. The biggest was Richard Morris Hunt’s Biltmore House of 1889–1895 in Asheville, North Carolina, created for George W. Vanderbilt II and almost triple the size.) Yet the publisher’s grandiose scheme—which included numerous outbuildings and a zoo also designed by Morgan, with bear and lion pits as well as giraffe and elephant houses—was still incomplete when his fortunes waned during the Great Depression.
Work at San Simeon halted and in 1933 Hearst was forced to mortgage the estate for $600,000 (about $13 million today) to a rival newspaperman, the Los Angeles Times owner Harry Chandler, who sportingly extended the loan in 1941 when Hearst couldn’t pay up because he didn’t want to be saddled with this money-devouring white elephant. But the Hearst Company bounced back during the prosperity spurred by World War II, and its founder resumed living at La Cuesta Encantada in 1945. Over the next two years he put the finishing touches on his quixotic dream realm.
Although there exists no accurate accounting of how much San Simeon cost Hearst—who had a way of offloading personal expenditures onto his corporate entities—estimates vary widely, from around $80 million to $1 billion in current value. In comparison to more recent mogul mansions, during the 1990s the junk-bond billionaire Ira Rennert reportedly spent $110 million on his Versailles-esque Hamptons beach house, which Vanity Fair dubbed “Sand Simeon.” But skilled labor was much cheaper during the Depression, when Hearst Castle was by far the largest private residential construction job in the US.
Hearst’s stupendous showplace had been familiar to movie audiences since the 1920s through newsreels of the Hollywood and international glitterati whom he and Davies collected for house parties there. Less admiringly, his folie de bâtir was satirized as a grotesquerie called Xanadu in Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Welles’s barely fictionalized biopic of the controversial press baron. Its opening and closing sequences depict the mountaintop redoubt in sinister silhouette like some vampire’s castle in a German Expressionist horror film, while other scenes evoke its elaborate but eerily cavernous and echoing interiors as a metaphor for the overreaching protagonist’s hollow inner life.
Morgan also designed several other houses for Hearst and Davies in and around Los Angeles during their many decades together, including her Spanish Colonial movie studio dressing room–bungalow of 1924–1937, long since demolished. One survivor is the Marion Davies Guest House of 1929 in Santa Monica, a white-clapboard Hollywood Regency structure with a pedimented and columned portico, the last remnant of her once-sprawling oceanfront estate. It has been restored and is now open to the public as part of the Annenberg Community Beach House, a neighborhood recreational center funded through a family foundation established by the mid-twentieth-century press tycoon Walter Annenberg.
In 1957—the year Morgan died at age eighty-five and six years after Hearst died at eighty-eight in a house she designed for him and Davies in Beverly Hills—the publisher’s family signed over San Simeon to the California State Parks system, which runs it as a popular tourist attraction. (His many descendants—he had five sons—retain private use of some of the estate’s buildings on a limited basis.) Among those who visited Hearst Castle after it opened to the public was Sara Holmes Boutelle, a Mount Holyoke–educated art history teacher at New York City’s Brearley School, who was intrigued to learn from a tour guide that a woman architect was responsible for this vast undertaking.
When Boutelle retired in the early 1970s, she moved to Santa Cruz, north of the Hearst estate on the California coast, and began a second career as an architectural historian. Thereafter she devoted herself to gaining recognition for Morgan, the first female graduate of the University of California’s School of Engineering at Berkeley to practice professionally; the first woman accepted into the architecture section of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, from which she received her diploma in 1902, another first; and the first woman to receive an architecture license in California. Boutelle’s preliminary biographical sketch of Morgan appeared in Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective, the catalog of an influential exhibition organized by the Architectural League of New York and curated by the architect Susana Torre, which opened at the Brooklyn Museum in 1977 and then traveled to Los Angeles.
This introduction to Morgan’s career convinced her executor, her nephew Morgan North, to grant Boutelle exclusive access to his aunt’s papers, but he died soon afterward and research was further delayed. In 1988 Boutelle’s Julia Morgan, Architect was finally published, and that pathbreaking monograph, though sporadically flawed, remains the basic reference on the forgotten pioneer whom she single-handedly rescued from historical oblivion.
It is now joined by two new books: Victoria Kastner’s Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect and Julia Morgan: The Road to San Simeon: Visionary Architect of the California Renaissance, a lavishly illustrated survey in a coffee-table format with essays by seven contributors, including Kastner. The best of this book’s contributions—too many of which emphasize the convention-bound Beaux-Arts style—is the architectural historian Karen McNeill’s definitive account of Morgan’s education at the École des Beaux-Arts. It might have been more profitably supplemented by wider-ranging investigations of many other aspects of Morgan’s career, especially the social and reformist implications of her long-sustained patronage by the YWCA.
The subtitle of Kastner’s biography somewhat oversells the likelihood that any writer, no matter how diligent, could divine the inner life of this exceptionally private woman. Kastner quotes copiously from Morgan’s personal correspondence, cited here more extensively than ever before, but she was not the self-revelatory sort. Nonetheless, the book is a good example of how to present historical architecture to a lay readership—with an engrossing personal story, a conversational narrative voice, lack of jargon, and a great many excellent illustrations both period and contemporary. Above all, it conveys a convincing sense of Morgan’s quiet but persistent rejection of the ingrained prejudice and long-unchallenged convention that kept women out of her chosen calling.
Why architecture was regarded from time immemorial as an impenetrable men’s preserve is arguably a question as much for psychologists as sociologists. Whatever the answer, the sheer physicality of erecting structures far larger than any individual was thought to require a strong driving force, bodily as well as psychic, that women were believed to lack. The age-old secrets of the building trade in Europe were jealously guarded by masons’ guilds that kept architectural knowledge within systems of male kinship, a monopoly that vigilantly excluded outsiders. During the eighteenth century this closed-shop craft served as the model for Freemasonry, the Enlightenment confraternity that sought to become a force for social cohesion through nonsectarian ethical values affirmed with arcane rituals based on the stone layer’s methodology. The fact that women were not welcomed into this association, either, further reinforced the baseless notion that they were unequal to the task of building.
It was only during the second half of the nineteenth century, which saw unprecedented advancement of women in higher education, that female aspirants dared to go beyond undergraduate degrees and stormed the stronghold of the architectural profession. In the United States, with its sense of social mobility, the idea of women architects perhaps did not seem as improbable as it might have in Europe, and the first American women began to study the building art in the very few schools that would have them.
Julia Morgan was born in San Francisco in 1872 to an unsuccessful businessman and the daughter of a millionaire New York cotton trader who habitually subsidized the family. After the beneficent patriarch’s death, his widow joined the Morgans in Oakland, where Julia’s parents had moved when she was two. As the oldest girl among five siblings, she saw her grandmother and mother as role models of female assertiveness made possible by their inherited wealth. (Her younger sister Emma received a law degree, also uncommon at the time. However, she soon married, had children, and never practiced professionally.) An older cousin of the Morgans was married to the New York architect Pierre LeBrun—the designer of the city’s Metropolitan Life Insurance Company tower of 1905–1909, briefly the world’s tallest building—and he encouraged Julia’s early interest in the profession.
Morgan’s bold determination to become a master builder was unquestionably enabled by her maternal family’s financial backing. But such support was not to be taken for granted in an era when even heiresses could be deterred from seeking higher education by relatives who believed it would hinder their marriage prospects or was a needless diversion for future wives and mothers. Not that Morgan was immune from familial pressures to marry and multiply. When she was twenty-eight her mother wrote to admonish her with homey directness, “You be looking out for a nice young man for yourself. I don’t want all my children old maids.”
Because the University of California in nearby Berkeley did not yet have an architecture school, at the age of eighteen Morgan enrolled in its civil engineering program and received her degree in 1894. She then took advanced design courses with Bernard Maybeck, the leading architect of the Bay Area’s burgeoning Arts and Crafts Movement, who became her mentor. Maybeck is celebrated for his idiosyncratic approach to both the Northern California vernacular (epitomized by his woodsy First Church of Christ, Scientist of 1909–1910 in Berkeley) as well as his playful way with the Classical tradition (most conspicuously the majestic Palace of Fine Arts of 1914–1915 in San Francisco). His most important early client was Phoebe Apperson Hearst—the formidable widow of the fabulously rich mining prospector George Hearst and mother of William Randolph, her overindulged only child—for whom Maybeck designed several of the buildings she endowed on the Berkeley campus. That connection would eventually lead Morgan to Mrs. Hearst and then her son, the architect’s most enduring patron.
Maybeck, an alumnus of the École des Beaux-Arts, felt that Morgan would benefit greatly if she also studied there. Because opinion in France had begun to favor women being admitted to that state-sponsored school’s painting and sculpture programs for the first time since its founding in 1648, he saw no reason why she should not be allowed into its architecture department. She finally prevailed, but thereafter endured hazing from her classmates, though her male compatriots also faced hostility from French students who felt that too many Americans were being let in. However, Morgan proved herself more than equal to the challenge, and in 1901 one of the École’s professors sang her praises to a Stockton, California, newspaper, though not without some residual sexism:
I would have no hesitation in confiding to her the erection of a building, as in the science of the profession she is far superior to half of her male comrades. It is true that an objection can be made that a woman cannot climb scaffolds to oversee the work or come in contact with the laborers and mechanics, but an architect’s functions do not consist exclusively of these disagreeable duties. His office work, such as preparing plans and sketches, is more important, and for this women are well suited.
Upon returning to the Bay Area the following year, Morgan, who was not yet accredited to practice architecture independently, went to work in the San Francisco office of the architect John Galen Howard, the master planner for the Berkeley campus expansion underwritten by Phoebe Hearst. When Morgan received her California architect’s license in 1904, she set up her own office. Her first independent commission was El Campanil of 1904, a steel-reinforced concrete, red-tile-roofed Mission Style bell tower at Mills College for Women in adjacent Oakland. It was so well constructed that it withstood the catastrophic 1906 earthquake and stands to this day. She also made alterations and additions to Phoebe Hearst’s country house of 1895–1898 by A.C. Schweinfurth in Pleasanton, California, and garnered a good deal of other work in the aftermath of the earthquake, which necessitated the wholesale rebuilding of the entire region. Several of those referrals she received via the so-called Women’s Network, an informal but highly effective word-of-mouth recommendation system through which feminist patrons sought to support women professionals and succeeded with remarkable frequency in a period when there was still so much ingrained gender bias surrounding male-dominated occupations.
This preferment was most evident in Morgan’s repeated commissions from the YWCA, the worldwide benevolent society that became especially influential during the decades when she designed a remarkable series of residential-and-recreational facilities for its members in California and Hawaii. The first of these was Asilomar, the YWCA’s national convocation facility in Pacific Grove on California’s Monterey Peninsula, a thirty-acre spread where between 1913 and 1929 she erected sixteen rustic structures in harmony with the unspoiled site. Taken over by the California Department of Natural Resources in 1956, it is now run as a hotel and conference center. The only one of Morgan’s YWCA buildings still owned and operated by the group is the beautifully preserved Honolulu branch—a sign of this once-omnipresent organization’s declining role in American community life.
The undisputed masterpiece of Morgan’s early career is St. John’s Presbyterian Church of 1910 in Berkeley (known since its deconsecration in 1974 as the Berkeley Playhouse’s Julia Morgan Theater). This tour de force of vigorous vernacular wood craftsmanship offered a radical alternative to the routine plaster-vaulted Gothic Revival church interiors of the period. Instead, it celebrates the unadorned beauty of its exposed beams and trusses, which create a vibrant overhead pattern of inverted and extended V forms that repeat down the entire length of the sanctuary.
So unusual was this informal look for a house of worship at that time—and “house” is the operative word here because of the structure’s inviting domestic intimacy—that the architect’s young nephew and future executor thought it might be a barn and wondered, “But Aunt Julia, where’s the hay?” St. John’s was completed in the same year as Maybeck’s nearby, rather similar, though somewhat fussier Christian Science church. Whether or not he and his former pupil compared notes on their respective projects, Morgan’s scheme is a work of extraordinary inventiveness, and it established her beyond doubt as a talent equal to any of her male peers in the Bay Area.
In a profession where personal presentation counts for so much in making a favorable impression on potential clients—ambitious male architects from Frank Lloyd Wright to Philip Johnson put much effort into perfecting their dressing-for-success—Morgan’s conservative outfits were no less carefully calibrated. With her primly tailored suits, white-collared shirts, horn-rimmed glasses, and no-nonsense hairdo, she might have been mistaken for a librarian or girls’ dormitory matron. And though her severe appearance recalls 1930s character actresses who specialized in cliché spinster roles, that protective coloration was shared by many other working women who conformed with exaggerated precision to male norms of attire in the business world.
Unsurprisingly, Morgan’s mannish appearance and the fact that she never married have given rise to speculation that she was a lesbian. Kastner, the author of three books on Hearst Castle, wastes no time in delivering a verdict: on the second page of the introduction to her new biography she reassures us that “abundant historical evidence confirms that she had no romantic relationships of any kind…. Julia’s lifelong love affair was with architecture.” Since one cannot know with any certainty what the inner feelings of someone as emotionally opaque as Morgan may have been, it might have been wiser to say that we simply do not know what her exact sexuality (or asexuality) was.
Despite repeat clients like the YWCA, the greatest constant in Morgan’s professional life was William Randolph Hearst. Although on the surface they seemed an ill-assorted pair—he was six-foot-three, she just a bit more than five feet tall; he was flamboyant and loquacious, she reticent and taciturn—they quickly established a rapport that helped the architect interpret her employer’s wishes almost telegraphically. Hearst was a compulsive, omnivorous, and not terribly astute collector, especially when compared with his older contemporaries J. Pierpont Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon, who consulted art experts rather than relying on their gut reactions. As Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. writes in Old Money: The Mythology of America’s Upper Class (1988), the credulous Hearst was
conned on virtually every purchase…. He is supposed to have put together “collections” in 504 different categories of arts and crafts, but when half of them were sold at auction—the trinkets covering two full acres of Gimbel’s floor space—they brought in half of what he had paid for them.
What could not be auctioned off easily during this Great Depression distress sale were the antique architectural elements that Hearst bought on his European travels and shipped to San Simeon to be incorporated into Morgan’s ever-evolving plans. In doing so he followed American magnates of the Gilded Age who commissioned structures in various historical revival styles but still craved the authenticity of genuine components that predated America’s founding. That fad for transatlantic cultural cannibalism culminated most successfully in the Cloisters, the charmingly assembled miscellany of Romanesque and Gothic courtyards, apses, and carved detailing removed from disused French and Spanish churches and monasteries, conjoined into a reasonable facsimile of a medieval citadel in Upper Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park, and given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1931. Hearst proposed an equivalent to be built by Morgan in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park—her unexecuted Medieval Museum of 1941–1945.
Like her fellow Californian Paul Revere Williams, who a generation later broke barriers for Black architects akin to her earlier advances for women, she had no ideological agenda apart from a determination to practice architecture against prevailing restrictions.* Thus she was more than happy, as Williams would be later, to give her clients whatever they wanted. In her case that included fantasies as divergent as the imposing Neptune pool of 1924–1936 at San Simeon, with its pergola resembling a Hollywood Roman temple (see illustration on page 10), and the Bavarian Neo-Gothic guesthouses of 1933–1941 at Hearst’s Wyntoon hunting-and-fishing lodge in Northern California, their exteriors painted with fairy-tale murals by the Hungarian children’s-book illustrator Willy Pogány.
Morgan’s willing stylistic expansiveness surely contributed to her half-century career’s longevity and productivity. A number of other architects who also started out as exponents of the Arts and Crafts Movement—particularly Greene and Greene, but also the British architects Charles Robert Ashbee and C.F.A. Voysey—found their careers in tatters when the style they had championed on philosophical grounds suddenly became passé. Trend-conscious clients sought other, more fashionable alternatives, especially the Classical Revival of the 1910s, through which the adaptable Maybeck extended his job prospects during his fifties, though he lived to be ninety-five and was largely idle during his last decades.
Unlike Williams, who was more than twenty years Morgan’s junior, the one imaginative realm she did not enter was Modernism. She was in her sixties when the new architecture began to win favor in this country during the 1930s, and her revivalist outlook was antithetical to its revolutionary ethos. Furthermore, the degree to which Hearst became almost her exclusive client in a period of extreme economic distress was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he kept her practice solvent for nearly three decades, one of which coincided with the Great Depression, which wrecked countless other architectural careers. On the other hand, Hearst, who hoarded not only objects but people, monopolized Morgan during her professional maturity when, under other circumstances, she might have been able to achieve things greater than a wildly anachronistic vanity project of pharaonic proportions.
Yet this was neither the first nor the last time in architectural history that a plutocratic form of indentured servitude sidetracked a major practitioner, as seen in our own time with Richard Meier’s long immurement in his Getty Center of 1984–1997 in Los Angeles, a supposed dream commission that turned out to have an unfortunate effect as his creative presence dimmed during that long and singularly absorbing preoccupation. Happily, Julia Morgan’s posthumous reputation continues to grow ever more luminous thanks to the legions of admirers who find inspiration in this relentlessly determined and undeterrable American pioneer.