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The publication of a new book on Bay Area architect Julia Morgan was timed for her sesquicentennial. Courtesy: Chronicle Books

Time has been kind to Julia Morgan. Now recognized as one of the 20th century’s greatest American architects, she did not receive the recognition she deserved during her lifetime, even though she broke the glass ceiling in 1898 by becoming the first woman to be accepted to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was among of a handful of women to receive a civil engineering degree from UC Berkeley in 1894 and would go on to create her most famous work, Hearst Castle, the 120-acre compound of her patron-turned-friend, the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. 

What: Author Victoria Kastner talks about her new book, Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect

When: Monday, April 4, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar St. Berkeley

Info: $16 tickets can be purchased at Eventbrite

Over a 50-year career, Morgan would design an estimated 700 buildings, mostly in California, including schools, churches, office buildings, clubhouses, hospitals, several buildings on the UC Berkeley campus, along with dozens of modest family dwellings in both Berkeley and Oakland. 

And yet, as recently as the 1980s, Morgan was relegated to the lower shelves of architectural history, criticized for lacking a style of her own and even failing to be mentioned by Life magazine as the creator of San Simeon when it became a state park in 1957. As the title of a 1981 ARTnews article put it, “She Was Considered America’s Most Successful Woman Architect — and Hardly Anybody Knew Her Name.”

Since the 1990s, however, Morgan’s appreciation has gained traction due to new scholarship and a re-evaluation of her work by her modern-day counterparts. In 2014, the American Institute of Architects awarded Morgan its Gold Medal 56 years after her death, the first time the organization granted its highest prize to a woman. 

The latest addition to Morgan’s legacy is a new book by the architectural historian Victoria Kastner, Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect (Chronicle Books), published on March 1 and already in its second printing. As its title suggests, the heavily annotated and picture-heavy book incorporates previously unknown details about the architect’s private life, as well as her career. The book’s publication was timed to honor the sesquicentennial of Morgan’s birth in 1872. 

On Monday at 7:30 p.m., Kastner will give her very first in-person talk about the book at the Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar St., Berkeley. The event is open to the public. Tickets are $16 and can be purchased in advance on Eventbrite.  

This is Kastner’s fourth book on the subject. Kastner, who hails from El Cerrito, spent three decades as Hearst Castle’s official historian and wrote, beginning in 2000, what is considered the definitive trilogy on its history, published by Harry N. Abrams. She’s now an independent researcher and lecturer. 

Kastner has spent thousands of hours over the decades researching the castle’s history, so has a deep understanding of the architect. But two new developments aided in the research for her latest book. 

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Julia Morgan in 1920. Courtesy Cal Poly Kennedy Library, San Luis Obispo

Within the last five years, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s Robert E. Kennedy Library, which houses the bulk of Morgan’s papers, changed its policy, allowing scholars to capture images of the source material on their cellphones. Previously, Kastner took notes using an electric typewriter. The change allowed Kastner and her research assistant, Ruth Latson, to spend their entire visits taking pictures, which they later transcribed in Kastner’s office. Kastner is donating those transcriptions to the archive. 

What was new for Kastner since researching her last book was the 2005 addition to the archive of a previously unpublished 197-page diary from Morgan’s final years, donated by the estate of Morgan biographer Sara Holmes Boutelle after her death. Though the Morgan archive already contained the many diaries Morgan had written during her travels, they focused primarily on architecture. The final diary recounts Morgan’s travels to Italy on a freighter in 1938-39, revealing a more intimate portrait of the notoriously reserved and publicity-shy architect.

“For the first time, she was traveling alone, so she would make the same observations about architecture but keep writing when she was alone and, for example, sitting at a cafe,” Kastner said. “In it, she muses about poverty and children and art and her childhood. It’s extraordinary.”

Kastner’s recent foray into the archives allowed her to dispel the myth that Morgan had destroyed her papers when she closed her offices, then in San Francisco, in 1950. Instead, she learned that Morgan had gotten in touch with clients, asking if they’d like their drawings and plans.

“She didn’t like to be interviewed, but she saved an awful lot of stuff,” including 2,462 letters and telegrams between her and Hearst alone. “You don’t save if you don’t expect somebody to do something with it,” Kastner said. 

Kastner’s research also confirmed that Morgan was likely not homosexual, as some have suggested, but a woman who simply did not have the time for a romantic partner of any gender.

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Morgan’s Phoebe Apperson Hearst Memorial Gymnasium, shown here in 1930, may face the wrecking ball. Courtesy Cal Poly Kennedy Library, San Luis Obispo

“In the first third of the 20th century, that was the norm for working women, not the exception. When you look at how astonishing her output was, there was no way she could be carrying on a relationship,” Kastner said. “She never had a long-term roommate or traveling companion. There’s no evidence of a deep romantic relationship with anyone.”

What took Kastner by surprise was discovering how much Morgan had taken on the caretaking of her family. Almost every member of her nuclear family experienced tragedy.

In 1913 her brother Sam, a fire chief, died at 33 in a car crash on his way to a fire. In 1918, her brother Parmelee died after a long, painful death from neurosyphilis, considered shameful at the time. Her mother, Eliza, had a stroke shortly after, from which she never fully recovered, and lived until 1930, requiring Morgan’s care. Her father, Charles, had a massive stroke in 1923 and died a year later.  

Morgan’s brother Avery, with whom she was the closest, developed early-onset dementia in the 1920s. Morgan took care of him for almost his entire life. He was known to wander, which ultimately led to his death. His body was found in 1943, nine months after disappearing from a Niles care facility. 

“It was shocking that I knew so much about what she did at San Simeon, and then I find this out about her family life,” Kastner said. “It’s hard to talk about it without crying.”

Despite Morgan’s many personal hardships, she never alludes to them in her diaries or the outright misogyny she suffered not only in Paris, when she was applying to the Ecole and working in Parisian ateliers, but in the U.S. in a profession long dominated by men. 

Morgan also suffered from her own physical ailments, resulting from ear problems as a child. She had three botched operations in 1932 and 1933, which left her face disfigured. 

“She never brooded over her many burdens, even in her own diaries when she’s writing to herself,” Kastner said.

That’s why, in her book, Kastner uses one word to describe Morgan’s character: strength. “Her strength helped her conquer endless difficulties,” she said.

Kastner suspects that Morgan’s strength of character was influenced by her mentor, Bernard Maybeck, the celebrated Bay Area architect whose heyday was from around 1900 to 1930. Though successful, Maybeck was often considered “a freak” by his peers, according to Kastner, and ostracized for his appearance. He often wore homemade clothing.

Maybeck, a graduate of the Ecole, is the one who had encouraged Morgan to apply. They also collaborated on projects in Berkeley, where he often worked outdoors at his home in the hills. In his later years, the roles reversed and Morgan became a mentor for Maybeck, working out of her San Francisco office.

“One of the things Maybeck said was ‘never consider yourself snubbed.’ That was her approach,” Kasten said. “True visionaries are not affected by personal slights. They don’t have the time. She led her life with fierce joy. She knew what it was like to create and solve problems and believed in herself. She was a big picture person.”

To modernists in the 1950s and ’60s, Morgan was criticized for not having a singular style of her own. Even Joan Didion weighed in that 1981 ARTnews article, calling Morgan “immensely eclectic — adaptable to a fault. She would construct whatever fantasy a client seemed to require, which is perhaps the only distinctly feminine aspect of her career.” In Didion’s 1966 essay, “A Trip to Xanadu,” about a visit to Hearst Castle, she never mentions Morgan.

“Didion’s comments reflect what a lot of people thought at the time,” Kastner said. Americans who knew about Hearst Castle equated it with Xanadu, the architectural folly that appeared in the film Citizen Kane

Morgan herself is partially to blame for her own obscurity. She was resistant to being interviewed. She believed that “architecture is an art of form, not an art of words.”

While her peers worked their social connections to get commissions, Morgan refused to do so. In 1918, when a friend took photographs and wrote about a house she built, Morgan was angry. “She said, ‘the buildings should speak,'” Kastner said. 

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The architectural historian Victoria Kastner, author of a new book on Julia Morgan, in Paris. Credit: Muna Cristal

Popular opinion regarding Morgan’s reputation began to change in 1979, when serious scholarship on Hearst Castle began. A year later, Morgan’s nephew, Morgan North, donated his aunt’s papers to Cal Poly. 

“Until then, there was nothing to read about Julia Morgan, and it is the written word that changes people’s minds,” Kastner said. 

In 1992, the architectural scholar Diane Favro questioned why it was such a bad thing when an architect is interested in what the client wanted them to do.

“People began to see that style doesn’t necessarily mean that everything looks like it was created by the same person. What she cared about was what architecture can do,” Kastner said. “Julia wanted the architecture to honor you. That didn’t mean she didn’t have approaches.”

While Morgan worked in an array of styles, much of her work is placed within a hybrid Beaux-Arts and Craft Style, reflecting “Beaux-Arts ideals about ennobling society and borrowing from the past in a new way,” Kastner said, along with the emphasis on the individual and handiwork of the Arts & Crafts movement. Morgan also loved classical architecture’s symmetry and was a stickler for quality. 

“She treated every single project as if it were the most important one,” Kastner said. “If you wanted window boxes upstairs, she’s going to make sure they have faucets in them so you can water the geraniums. There’s a practicality, an elegance, a simplicity to her work. And those qualities are a style.” 

As a testament to the enduring popularity of her buildings over time, Kastner notes that of the dozens of middle-class homes she built following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake in the so-called “brown shingle neighborhoods” of Berkeley and Oakland, few were torn down during modernism’s purges in the 1950s and ’60s. 

“When you go into a Julia Morgan building today, they’re not changed,” Kastner said. “People love her buildings. They don’t change them because they work so beautifully.”

Morgan’s later years were overshadowed by memory lapses similar to those suffered by her family members. After closing her office in the Merchants Exchange Building in 1950, she took a trip to Spain and failed to return to the ship. That was her last freighter voyage, though she took an around-the-world cruise, her last, in 1951. 

She died on Feb. 2, 1957, two weeks after having a stroke, and was buried at the family plot at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. Her friends raised $15,0000 ($140,000 in today’s value) to honor her with a University of California scholarship in her name, which is still in existence, though under a different name. While Cal Poly’s Kennedy library represents the major repository of Morgan’s documents, UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and College of Environmental Design Archives also house some architectural drawings and papers.

“We need inspiring stories now more than ever. The real driving influence for me, besides writing this book, was to make this archive of her words available so we can all be inspired,” Kastner said. “We all live in architecture. She wanted it to glorify not only one of the richest guys in America but everybody.”

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The staircase at the Berkeley City Club reflect Julia Morgan’s love of Beaux-Arts elegance and Arts and Crafts individualism. Credit: Alex Vertikoff

Where to see Morgan’s work in the East Bay

  1. Berkeley City Club (formerly Berkeley Women’s City Club), 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley, 1930. One of Morgan’s best-known public buildings, the six-story, 46,105 square-foot reinforced-concrete structure has 42 guest rooms. The building presented an engineering challenge due to the weight of the second-floor columns on the first-floor arches in the swimming pool. “It’s something anyone can visit,” Kastner said. It includes Julia’s Restaurant, which is open to the public.
  1. Julia Morgan Hall (formerly Girton Hall), UC Botanical Gardens, 200 Centennial Drive, Berkeley, 1912. Once part of the UC Berkeley campus, the wooden structure was built for the women in the senior class of 1912, but soon became a hangout for all women on campus. The clapboard building is in the First Bay Tradition, reflected by its central fireplace, rustic interior and exposed beams. In 2014, the building was moved to the botanical garden, when it was renamed. 
  1. Phoebe Apperson Hearst Memorial Gymnasium, Bancroft Way at Bowditch Street, Berkeley, 1927. The gym was created on the UC campus with her mentor Bernard Maybeck, who at the time was so little involved with the actual design, he asked where the restroom was on opening day. The complex contains a temple-like pavilion, three studios, two gyms and three swimming pools, which utilized the same filtration system as San Simeon’s Neptune Pool. “It’s fenced off and as of 2018, planners at UC have marked it for demolition,” Kastner said. “It is the only building that is a monument to Phoebe Apperson Hearst, who basically wrote a blank check to have the whole campus redesigned.” Hearst also underwrote the first international architectural competition at the turn of the century for the design of the campus. “What they’re doing now is demolition by neglect,” Kastner added. The gym was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. 
  1. Fred C. Turner Store, Piedmont Avenue and 40th Street, Oakland, 1916. This shopping complex with apartments above was built for the Turner family in an Italianate style featuring terracotta roundels on the exterior. Though the facade is all brick, it is backed by Morgan’s frequent use of reinforced concrete. Because of her engineering background and training at the Ecole involving reinforced concrete, then considered cutting edge, Morgan was considered a master of the technique.
  1. 66 Panoramic Way, Berkeley, early 1930s. Morgan built this apartment complex for the Turner family in a simplified French Regency style. Though the apartment building has been replaced by an eight-story housing complex, Morgan’s front entrance remains. 
  1. Julia Morgan Theater (formerly St. John’s Presbyterian Church), 2640 College Ave., Berkeley, 1910. One of Morgan’s most important early projects, the building is considered one of the finest examples of the East Bay’s Arts and Crafts style and features open roof beams and trusses with a wood-shingle exterior finish known as Berkeley Brown Shingle. 
  1. Chapel of the Chimes, 4499 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, 1927. “Her buildings in North Oakland are some of her most remarkable and this one may be the most remarkable of all,” Kastner said. The chapel and columbarium outside the gates of Mountain View Cemetery is a modern concrete building designed to be earthquake resistant. Its late Romanesque-early Gothic style incorporates extensive ornamentation in cast stone and cast plaster, requiring the expertise of old world craftsmen. 
  1. William Randolph Hearst Greek Theater, 2001 Gayley Rd, Berkeley, 1903. While John Galen Howard was the architect, Morgan served as construction superintendent, one of the first projects she worked on after returning to the U.S. after graduating from the Ecole. The theater is on the National Register of Historic Places.
  1. The Selden Williams house, 2821 Claremont Ave., Berkeley, 1928. Commissioned by Lizzie Glide (who founded San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church) for her daughter, Elizabeth and her husband Selden Williams, this 6,200-square-foot Mediterranean-style home was built for entertaining. For about 20 years, the building served as the home for UC Berkeley’s vice president before it was sold in the 1990s. It is again a private home. “It is a beautiful house and not obscured by tall shrubbery,” Kastner said. “You can drive by.”