California's First Licensed Female Architect Built Lavishly, Lived Simply

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A middle-aged white woman wearing round black spectacles, a crisp white shirt and smart black jacket, gazes to the side of the camera, her greying hair pulled back in a messy bun.

Julia Morgan's name might not be familiar to everyone, but some of the beautiful landmarks she left behind undoubtedly are. Hearst Castle in San Simeon stands as the most famous monument to Morgan's boundless imagination—but across the Bay Area, her architectural fingerprints dot the landscape.

Born in San Francisco in 1872, Morgan understood how to create grand and imposing structures without once sacrificing meticulous detail. It was a combination that forced the world to look past her gender—she was California's first licensed female architect—and simply embrace her abilities. Her talent, coupled with a willingness to work around the clock, six days a week, made her prolific. In the first 12 years of her career alone, she completed 300 commissions, some of which were extremely prestigious.

Just four years after receiving her architectural license, Morgan was tasked with rebuilding the lavish (not to mention enormous) Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco's Nob Hill. The hotel had been destroyed by the 1906 fire and the owners wanted to rebuild using the safest possible methods. They had no choice but to turn to Morgan: She had knowledge of reinforced concrete, a brand new technique, that other California architects lacked at the time.

Part of the reason Morgan's skills surpassed those of her peers was that she had studied abroad. Reinforced concrete was invented in England, but she learned about it at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She was the first woman to ever attend the school, and gaining the respect of her all-male peers was an isolating slog. Still, by all accounts, she never grumbled.

Though born privileged, Morgan had always been somewhat of an outsider. When she was little, she was a tomboy. In high school, where her sister and debutante classmates began to follow their prescribed paths of homemaking and high society, Morgan was obsessed only with her studies and making a mark on the world.


That singleminded determination gave her an adaptability that other pampered children might have lacked. In Paris, she sometimes sacrificed eating in order to buy books, steadfastly refusing to ask her parents for financial assistance. Later, when her Montgomery Street office was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake, she sketched her designs for the new and improved Fairmont in a rat-infested shack behind the hotel ruins.

Though she always dressed like a lady for work, Morgan was never afraid to get her hands dirty—literally. She was known on occasion to rip out tile work she deemed inadequate using only her bare hands. She also thought nothing of climbing wobbly ladders and towering scaffolding to check on building progress. One of her chief engineers, Walter Steilberg, once reported:

When she reached the floor [from the scaffolding] she was quite a-glow with enthusiasm... She urged me to go up on the scaffold and see for myself. It was a fearful experience. But I went, conquering my trembling.

In the early 1920s, when Morgan was building Hearst Castle alongside William Randolph Hearst—a grueling, six-year-long process—her building site walks were particularly precarious. Her nephew, Morgan North, later recalled, "Every once in a while, when they hadn't fenced off a stairwell or something, she would go right down to the floor below."

Morgan's boundless appetite for work was slowed only twice in her life—by the Great Depression and World War II. And even then, it was out of practicality, rather than a lack of passion. She didn't stop working entirely until the age of 79, and architecture had been her life's entire focus. As such, Morgan never married and never had children, choosing instead to lavish attention and gifts on all the kids lucky enough to find themselves in her life—nieces, nephews and the children of her employees. (At one point, she even built an elaborate playhouse for the daughter of one of her regular taxi drivers.)

Her nurturing side also found a place in her work. As women won the right to vote and began to forge new paths, Morgan was hired to design YWCAs for young women making their way in the world. She was enthusiastic about the task at hand, and expressed the desire to give the buildings as many home comforts as she could squeeze in. She worked sewing rooms, recreation rooms and even beauty parlors into her plans.

At a 1932 board meeting about the imminent construction of San Francisco's YWCA—now the Clay Street Center—Morgan's thoughtfulness was in evidence. She proposed filling a small, unused space with "little private dining rooms with little kitchenettes so that the girls can invite their friends, and cook a meal." When a board member objected to the idea saying, "These are minimum wage girls. Why spoil them?" Julia stated plainly, "That's just the reason."

With Bay Area creations too numerous to list here, Julia Morgan's ubiquity is fairly astonishing. In San Francisco, her spirit endures in the elegant columns of the Fairmont Hotel, and on the bronze Art Deco façade of the Hearst Building. In Berkeley, her pragmatic vision remains in the reinforced concrete of the Greek Theatre, and the redwood beams of St. John's Presbyterian Church. And in Oakland, her eye for detail lives on in the red tile roof of the bell tower at Mills College.

Morgan did not believe, she said, in "going around patting yourself on the back." She wanted instead for her work to speak for her—and she lived by that rule for the duration of her life. Morgan never bothered to publish a book of her achievements, and she never pursued any architectural accolades. In death, however, she began receiving them regardless.

In 2008, Julia Morgan was inducted into the California Hall of Fame at Sacramento's Museum for History, Women and the Arts. And in 2014, she became the first woman to receive a gold medal from the American Institute of Architects—the organization's highest honor. Despite the foundations she laid a century ago, Morgan currently remains the only woman to receive it, as well.


For stories on other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, click here