“Julia Morgan: Insight into Her Education and Career”

By Johanna Kahn

Julia Morgan (1872-1957) was a prolific twentieth-century architect in California and beyond, having designed more than 700 buildings during her career.

A young Julia Morgan grew up in the Oakland area

 She grew up in Oakland, California and attended the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned a degree in civil engineering in 1894. Her ambitions led her to Paris, where she became the first woman to study architecture at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and was awarded her diploma in 1902 before returning to California.

Morgan established her architectural practice in San Francisco, where she earned distinction in a field dominated by men. Despite the acclaim of her Beaux-Arts education, she became better known for her instrumental role in the movement to create an architecture that was distinctly Californian. It was through the Arts and Crafts style that Morgan demonstrated her signature ingenuity.

Both ancient and modern architecture was a fountainhead of information for the curriculum at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where students were offered a rationalist fine arts education steeped in classicism and focused on the development of architectural axioms. Beginning in the 1880s, the teaching method and curriculum promoted by the École fundamentally influenced architectural education in the United States. Reputable schools of architecture such as those at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of California, Berkeley adopted the systematic Beaux-Arts philosophy that continued to thrive in America until about 1940, when modernist theory became the dominant influence.

Despite the burgeoning local availability of the Beaux-Arts mode of education, many American students desired the authentic experience in Paris. Americans were admitted to the École’s architecture program beginning in 1846, and the first woman to be accepted was Julia Morgan, an American, in 1898.

Morgan’s passport picture for her trip to Paris

 Around the turn of the twentieth century, the coursework included lectures in art and architectural history, theory, design and composition, and methods of construction. Outside these lessons, students were required to participate in monthly design competitions and gained work experience in the ateliers of practicing architects. In addition to the formal instruction Morgan received, she constantly studied her surroundings. During her six-year residence in Paris, she observed the urban transformation resulting from the extensive building programs planned for the 1900 Exposition Universelle and the Métropolitaine underground transportation system.


Photo Credit – Sara Holmes Boutelle

 She traveled for pleasure throughout Europe, visiting places she had studied and sketching her surroundings and the people she encountered. Morgan’s architectural, cultural, and social education extended well beyond the environs of the École.

When Julia Morgan returned from Paris to her native Oakland in 1902, she was a sophisticated lady with a valuable diploma from the world’s premier architectural institution. Her earliest American job was as a draftsperson and part-time designer for John Galen Howard, the supervising campus architect of Morgan’s alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley. She worked independently for the philanthropist Phoebe Apperson Hearst, a woman whose patronage and praise would prove invaluable to Morgan’s budding career. She also allied herself with the administrators of Mills College, a women’s college in Oakland, for whom she would ultimately design six buildings. After becoming a certified California architect in March 1904, Morgan practiced for a brief time in San Francisco until the devastating earthquake and subsequent conflagration on April 18, 1906 destroyed much of the city, causing extensive structural damage across the region. Despite this tragedy, the urgent need for architects resulted in a period of rebuilding that was tremendously advantageous to Morgan’s nascent career.

In addition to being equipped with a versatile Beaux-Arts repertoire and an expanding network of professional connections, Morgan had a strong background in civil and structural engineering from UC Berkeley, which, in the words of her colleague Walter Steilberg, made her “far more accomplished in the area of building technology than any of the men I have known.” Her reconstruction of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel after the 1906 earthquake earned national acclaim, and it has been estimated that Morgan’s commissions increased more than 250 percent in the wake of this job. Publically, Morgan was prim and observant, and her associate Dorothy Wormser-Coblentz once remarked that “she looked like a nobody.”

An associate once remarked that Julia Morgan was “looking like a nobody”

Despite her modest public persona, it is clear from accounts by Morgan’s staff (which included men and women) that the office labored toward the realization of her designs and that, after catering to and compromising with her patrons, she alone was the principal creator. Morgan’s aptitude for design and construction regularly impressed her clients and she earned a favorable reputation for her enthusiasm, thoroughness, and gentle tenacity.

Another force – arguably stronger than Beaux-Arts theory – was frequently at play in the conception of her designs. Julia Morgan was a native Californian and was knowledgeable about regional architecture and materials. She had insight into and appreciation for types and styles of buildings and crafts beyond the traditional sphere of ornamental Beaux-Arts application. As her niece, Flora North, observed, “[Julia Morgan’s] tastes were very catholic as far as art was concerned.” Morgan’s skill in designing steel and concrete structural systems extended to local redwood lumber and fieldstone construction. She became as equally well-versed in placing distinguished pediments on urban façades as she was with utilizing adobe tile roofs and rustic wood siding.

The California Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a regional approach to architecture inspired by the British Arts and Crafts movement. The abundant natural and architectural heritage of the San Francisco Bay Area induced Julia Morgan (along with her mentor Bernard Maybeck, Ernest Coxhead, A.C. Schweinfurth, Louis C. Mullgardt, Willis Polk, and many others) to design buildings that incorporated locally manufactured materials, expressed truthfully the nature of materials and structure, demonstrated originality of design, integrated the site and landscape, and employed skilled artists and craftspeople to execute work of superb quality. Many of the designs by the Arts and Crafts architects of northern California were termed “Bay Region style” by the architectural critic Lewis Mumford in 1947.

Julia Morgan’s partnership with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) was one of her longest professional affiliations, and over the course of her career she was involved in designing more than 30 buildings for the institution. To Walter Steilberg, she offered this advice:

    Don’t turn down a job because you think it’s beneath you, because you think you want to do something larger…One of the smallest jobs I ever had was a little two-room residence in Monterey [California]…when I first started in practice for myself. The lady for whom I did it was most pleased with the job, and now the lady is the chairman of the board of the YWCA. And from that has come all these fine big jobs we have.

In appreciation for her excellent work, Morgan was offered the position of supervising architect for the National Board of the YWCA in 1919. Although she declined the offer in order to remain near her family, she received many more commissions from the institution.

The decade between 1915 and 1925 marks the transition from the early to intermediate career of Julia Morgan. Soon after she had become a certified architect, Morgan established a thriving architectural practice and earned a reputation for quality and originality in design. Her clients’ unanimous satisfaction resulted in the proliferation of her professional network, and, despite her increasing celebrity, she directed a steady schedule of projects and remained fully committed to each. Dorothy Wormser-Coblentz reminisced about Morgan’s office, “She was a perfectionist, and each job was a maximum effort. Nothing was left incomplete.” Morgan continued to hone her design skills, broadening her scope of reference through experience and observation. She explored the integration of architectural styles and successfully applied Arts and Crafts and Beaux-Arts principles to Mediterranean, medieval, and Asian-inspired designs, which resulted in the contemporization of historic and foreign styles.

Morgan with her most famous client, William Randall Hearst

 Over the course of her long career, Morgan designed hundreds of residences in and around San Francisco. Although achieving innovation was not a priority, she applied her knowledge of traditional architecture to create designs that were uniquely contemporary, and her arsenal of regionalist and revivalist methods and details were not squandered on the commonplace Victorian row house.

To fulfill her paper visions, Morgan relied on the expertise of skilled craftspeople to fabricate many of the components of her designs. After supplying her draftspeople with conceptual sketches and client-approved modifications, Morgan’s office produced detailed full-scale drawings of the individual architectural elements requiring specialized production. As one employee recalled, “You started your original sketch as a little swirl, but what went to the caster or the wood carver…was the full-size detail.” Accomplished artisans were valuable resources to Morgan and were considered to be her “real instruments of expression.” With the increasing emphasis on technology and the depreciation and scarcity of craft traditions in the twentieth century, both employer and employee were eager to have the favor of the other.

Julia Morgan is remembered first and foremost as an Arts and Crafts architect, and her contribution to the California Arts and Crafts style cannot be overstated. While not every Morgan building can or should be classified as “Arts and Crafts,” she embraced the views of that international movement early in her career, and its sustained influence is an essential characteristic of her life’s work. Whether or not she envisioned a Mediterranean, Asian, or other foreign aesthetic, she sensitively adapted her historical models for a nonnative context. She accomplished this by imbuing key architectural elements with a regionally distinctive and familiar vocabulary, and this often resulted in inventive and referentially complex designs.

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