Julia Morgan (1872-1957), California’s first licensed woman architect has more than 700 buildings to her credit, designed and built over a professional career spanning over four decades . A fellow UC Berkeley alumna, this gracious and immensely talented architect has intrigued and inspired me in immeasurable ways. Her legacy is relevant today for her vernacular approach to sustainable architecture and fearless endeavors to advance in a profession that reluctantly opened its doors to women in the early 20th century.
The state wide Julia Morgan 2012 Fall Festival opened many forgotten doors for Morgan ; to UC Berkeley’s Wall of Fame and as one of the 18 honorees of the National Women’s History Project this March, aligned with the theme for this year “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics”
With courses in structural design and descriptive geometry under her belt, Morgan graduated with a Civil Engineering degree in 1894 from UC Berkeley and in 1898 became the first woman to be admitted to the prestigious architecture certification program at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Back on home turf, the San Francisco Bay Area, she worked briefly for John Galen Howard as assistant supervising architect for the Greek Theatre, his first building on the UC Berkeley campus. I have vivid memories of my commencement ceremony as an architecture graduate at this famed amphitheater, rightfully placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Adapted from the amphitheatre at Epidaurus, Greece, now a world heritage site, the Greek Theatre was built as a concrete structure in 1903, under the aegis of William Randolph Hearst as the first open theatre of its size in the country. Morgan focused on the concrete mix for more than 6000 outdoor seats, including pouring, setting and establishing quality control methods for cast in place concrete. Interestingly, while the outdoor seating itself has had no seismic issues being set on grade, the rest of the theatre underwent a major seismic upgrade and expansion recently. This unique experience gave way to Morgan’s independent practice in 1904 and projects in reinforced concrete such as the Mills College Bell Tower, Oakland (1904), Hearst Women’s Gymnasium, UC Berkeley (1925) and the Berkeley City Club (1929) that integrated her engineering skills with an architectural flair.
Her expertise in this revolutionary material at the time and methods of boxing, mixing, ramming, depositing and moistening the concrete set her reputation apart as a pioneering engineer. No wonder her professional services for structural evaluation and reconstruction were called upon when the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco was damaged in the 1906 earthquake and fire, to be reopened shortly after in 1907. She even got creative with her plaster mix as reflected in a 1905 set of specifications that lay out the steps for a ‘paste’ using “standard” cement, sharp beach sand, ‘best’ cattle hair and “Roche Harbor” lime.
Almost a century later, I became fascinated with reinforced concrete as a summer intern on a large site at the remote edge of a bustling metropolis. The only woman among a staff of 80 men, climbing scaffoldings in the scorching heat, I eagerly watched concrete being poured and cured for roof slabs with lapped steel reinforcement. This construction experience taught me later, like Morgan, to create my own cement mix, adding slaked lime and recycled brick dust to naturally taint the exterior grout.
Seeing eye to eye with Julia Morgan is however, daunting. And yet, her petite frame, unassuming persona and unflinching resolve are both infectious and encouraging. A renaissance woman, Morgan also straddled the worlds of science and engineering, her interdisciplinary practice defying the conventional notion of Architecture as the mother of all Arts.
As the women’s history month wraps up for 2013, let us continue to be reminded of game changers like Julia Morgan. Her golden glow of unprecedented success and contribution to the architectural heritage of America has permeated a century of recognition and applause. Accolades for this trailblazer should culminate with the American Institute of Architects highest honor at the national level. A posthumous Gold medal for Julia Morgan as the first woman recipient would not only be fitting but well deserved.
And I would bow down to that.
Sara Holmes Boutelle “Julia Morgan Architect”, Abbeville Press Publishers, 1995
Environmental Design Archives and Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
Sandhya Sood AIA is an award winning architect, certified green building professional and Principal of Accent Architecture+Design in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a Master’s in Architecture from UC Berkeley and is the author of “Julia Morgan: Architecture for Sustainability”. She is a member of the American Institute of Architects, the Organization of Women Architects and the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.