Julia Morgan, California’s first certified female architect, was inducted into the California Hall of Fame last month. The Hall of Fame was established in 2006 “to honor legendary people who embody California’s innovative spirit and have made their mark on history.”
Miss Morgan, as she was always addressed, did more than make her mark on history; her structures are a very major contribution to the visual delight of the East Bay, as well as the greater Bay Area and beyond in our state.
In Berkeley we have the Berkeley City Club (1929) and the Julia Morgan Theatre (1910) to name just a few of her major stuctures, and dozens of elegant houses that grace some of the residential areas. Oakland has the YWCA, notable contributions to Mills College, including their campanile, and the older parts of the wonderful Chapel of the Chimes.
She was a local girl, born in 1872 in San Francisco. The family moved to Oakland when she was very young, and she continued to live in the family home for much of her adult life. She attended Oakland High School and then the University of California in Berkeley. By then her interest in architecture had been aroused by a family friend, but because Cal did not have an architecture program at that time, she became the first woman to get a degree in civil engineering. Very likely she first met Phoebe Apperson Hearst during her Cal days, a connection that would prove a major factor in her career, and in the design of the legendary Hearst Castle in San Simeon.
Encouraged by Bernard Maybeck (whose own architectural contritbutions to our area are very important), she determined to study architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. But there was a problem. The École did not admit women. She persisted, and after failing to pass the entrance exam—which was given in French, a language she had to learn while in Paris, and used the metric system of measurement, then, as now, not idiomatic to Americans—she was successful on her third try. She traveled in Europe during this period, absorbing the Mediterranean look that was to color many of her buildings.
The Great Earthquake of 1906 may have inconvenienced many area residents, but it provided a major boost to her career. Her own first move after the earth stopped moving was to race down to Mills College to see if her bell tower had survived. It had—an acid test for an architect in earthquake country. The Fairmont Hotel, badly damaged but still standing, was entrusted to this comparative youngster (and a woman!) to restore to grandeur. This included the major challenges of the structural engineering.
The early decades of the 20th century saw a major shift in women’s roles in our country. They were not given the vote until 1920. “The Women’s Movement,” a loose term for this period, exactly coincided with her early professional career. Miss Morgan was, of course, well known as an example of the female potential, but was a leader simply by doing what she did very, very well. Not surprisingly, a good many of her commissions were YWCAs and other buildings with a feminine association.
Her own personality is somewhat enigmatic. She did not give interviews and did not write books. (Possibly she would have said her buildings were her books.) She was not at all a forbidding character; in the relatively few pictures we have of her she looks, in the usual cliché, “like a schoolmarm.” She would fearlessly climb ladders and scaffolding with her workers, being a very hands-on supervisor, not content to simply hand over plans, and she donned trousers under her skirts to maintain propriety. She never married but was fond of children and, when designing a home for a family, would sometimes include secret stairways and passages for their delight. Among the 700 or so commissions she accomplished was a charming, and quite extensive, playhouse for the children of the taxi driver who ferried the non-driving Miss Morgan to and fro the San Luis Obispo train station to San Simeon for the many years of that project. Her staff’s only complaint was that, as a workaholic before that term came into use, she sometimes didn’t keep in mind that some of them had families they wanted to spend time with.
Her legacy certainly rests in her buildings themselves. She is only modestly represented in the Berkeley Public Library, much of this in the Children’s department, and doesn’t show up at all in a subject search, only in a key word search. A child can probably go through our local public schools without hearing her name.
Surprisingly, the December induction of Miss Morgan with other major figures in our state’s history seems to have gathered almost no local press coverage, certainly not in the Chronicle. The 2008 inductees included several more with strong ties to the Bay Area: Leland Stanford, and—most fortunately still with us and still productive—jazz great Dave Brubeck and food icon Alice Waters.
The Berkeley City Club, housed in her beautiful six-story Mediterranean- style building near the Cal campus, will celebrate Miss Morgan’s induction with a reception, open to the public, on Sunday, Jan. 18, 5–7:30 p.m. Information and reservations at (510) 883-9710 and www.berkeleycityclub.com.
Dick Bagwell is a member of the Berkeley City Club and a docent for the monthly free tours of the building given by the Landmark Heritage Foundation, dedicated to historic preservation of the clubhouse and promoting the legacy of Julia Morgan.