New Book Celebrates Julia Morgan, Pioneering Architect From The Golden Era

By Published On: March 1, 20224.8 min read

When Julia Morgan was born in 1872, nobody knew she was going to change American architecture. Over the next 50 years, she worked tirelessly to design and build over 700 buildings across the country, from castles to private spas. She often used reinforced concrete in a time long before it was mainstream.

If Morgan truly is one of the greatest American architects of all time, why isn’t she a household name like Frank Lloyd Wright?

Morgan was a true trailblazer, and it makes sense her new book is coming out for Women’s History Month. She is the subject of a compelling new biography by Victoria Kastner, “Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect,” out with Chronicle Books on March 1.

Morgan was the only woman to graduate from UC Berkeley with a civil engineering degree in 1894, long before the suffrage movement. In 1898, she was the first woman accepted into the architecture program at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. When she returned to the west coast, she became the first woman to be a fully licensed architect in the state of California, in 1904.

LA Examiner Building

LA Examiner Building | Images provided by Chronicle Books

Among her commercial properties, Morgan designed the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, which feels like a historic palace with its marble pillars in its sprawling lobby. She also designed the Herald Examiner Building in Los Angeles, an office tower that was built for a newspaper.

She designed and built schools, churches, museums and theaters, as well as private member’s clubs, hospitals and mansions.

The book features new interviews on Morgan’s legacy as a designer, architect and creator of both interior design and landscape architecture projects. Readers will also enjoy never-seen-before personal letters, drawings and handwritten diaries. The book features over 150 images and new color photographs of her projects, most notably Hearst Castle.

Roman Pool at Hearst Castle

Roman Pool at Hearst Castle | Images provided by Chronicle Books

Morgan designed Hearst Castle, a historic estate in San Simeon, California, which was home to Hearst publishing tycoon, William Randolph Hearst. Morgan designed this 40,000-acre estate between the years of 1919 and 1947. It became a Great Gatsby-esque party hub for Old Hollywood characters, including the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton and Greta Garbo. Hearst’s lavish lifestyle he developed at this home became inspiration for Orson Welles’ 1941 film, “Citizen Kane.” Today, the estate is a museum and National Historic Landmark.

Pool at Berkeley City Club

Pool at Berkeley City Club | Images provided by Chronicle Books

She was the queen of pools. Morgan designed many pools throughout her career, among them the Berkeley City Club Pool, on the UC Berkeley campus, which was fully funded by women. The design, created in 1929, combines Gothic and Moorish elements that led to the development of what we know today as “California design.” The pool has rows of dramatic, rounded arches above the WATER, and the walls have cloistered arched windows.

She also designed the Annenberg Community Beach House Pool in Santa Monica State Beach, as part of Hearst Castle. The property also has the Neptune Pool on, which incorporates mythological symbols and statues of Roman gods.

Not all her projects were classical, though. She used reinforced concrete for several buildings. As soon as her reinforced concrete bell tower at Mills College survived an earthquake in 1906, she soon became one of the most sought-after architects in the country. The American Institute of Architects posthumously honored her with a Gold Medal in 2014 for her contributions to architecture, and she was the first female recipient. She was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2008.

Though she was revered in local newspaper articles that called her “one of the most successful architects on the coast,” she still had objections. When she was under consideration to design a wing at Berkeley hospital in 1904, one city council member refused to allow her to design the property, for this reason at the time: “Commissioner Elroy refused to vote on the resolution. He explained that he did not know Miss Morgan, who is the only woman architect in the city, and therefore did not care to sanction her appointment.” But the commissioner was eventually overruled by other council members, and Morgan submitted designs for Berkeley’s Fabiola Hospital soon thereafter.

As more women architects became licensed around the country, Morgan wasn’t pigeonholed to one style or type of job. She created a wide variety of buildings, while other women architects often did residential commissions and women’s club designs for a fraction of the price it cost to hire a male architect.

What set Morgan’s homes apart was that she designed them in the style of the First Bay Tradition, like her 1914 Bell House, which blended sleek modernism with warm, rustic elements of California design.

Saratoga Foothill Club

Saratoga Foothill Club | Images provided by Chronicle Books

Her resilience is what made Morgan’s success. As Kastner writes in the book: “Perhaps the one word that best describes Julia Morgan is “strength.” This might seem odd, considering her diminutive appearance. But her strength helped her conquer endless difficulties—stubborn misogynists; family troubles; personal health struggles; demanding clients; and more logistical and construction challenges than we can possibly guess. She believed in herself and in her ability to solve problems, and this was the secret of her greatness.”

Morgan died in 1957 at the age of 85, but her legacy still reigns today, with many of her properties historically preserved and intact. As Morgan once said: “Architecture is a visual art, and the buildings speak for themselves. My buildings will be my legacy… they will speak for me long after I’m gone.”

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