One of California’s greatest architects, Julia Morgan has few equals. To honor her, the California Cultural and Historical Endowment has sponsored the statewide “Julia Morgan 2012 Festival – Landmarks California” for their pilot project.
Throughout the state, communities are celebrating their Julia Morgan buildings with dinners, fund raisers, tours, and exhibitions. The gala dinner was held at the Berkeley City Club last month and was kicked off by social activist Dorka Keehn discussing “Women, Equity, Architecture.” UC Berkeley’s Environmental Design School is hosting “Hidden Engineer: The Designs of Julia Morgan,” an exhibit of her plans, sketches and illustrations through December.
Julia Morgan (1872-1957) was a trail blazer on many fronts. One of the first women to graduate from UC Berkeley’s Civil Engineering school in 1894, Miss Morgan was the first woman to graduate from Paris’ esteemed Ecole de Beaux Artsin 1902. She was one of the first women to be licensed in the State of California and one of the first to join the American Institute of Architects.
Before opening her own office in 1904, she worked with many of the master architects of the day, including Bernard Maybeck, John Galen Howard, and Walter T. Steilberg. Completing over 800 commissions over the span of her career (an average of one building every six weeks!), she is arguably the most prolific of California native architects. Her work spans the simplest of residences to some of the largest institutional buildings on the University of California campuses.
Many of her significant works came through the Hearst family. First with Phoebe Apperson Hearst on the University Of California Berkeley campus, then on Mills College in Oakland. With William R. Hearst, Phoebe’s son, she built California’s largest residence, the castle at San Simeon. She had many contacts with women organizations and completed over 100 buildings for women through out California, Utah, and Hawaii including over 30 buildings for the YWCA, the nation’s largest and most influential women’s organization.
Although physically quite petite (barely 5 feet tall weighing 100 pounds), she was a giant among women, engineers, and architects. Yet, no matter the size of a completed project, she shunned publicity saying “she preferred the buildings speak for themselves.” Characterized by the use of California vernacular with an Arts and Crafts sensibility, her work illustrates human scale, strength, attention to detail, respect for the landscape, and indigenous materials.
Today, many of Miss Morgan’s buildings are California State landmarks and a number are on the National Register of Historic Places. Timeless and classic in their designs, the buildings are a testimony to her Beaux Arts training and craftsmanship.
According to the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, probably the best example of her many skills as an architect is the Berkeley City Club, known affectionately as Morgan’s “Little Castle.” In this building, every element reflects her training in civil engineering and architecture as well as her California heritage and personal eye to detail. Craftsmanship is of the highest order, executed by her San Simeon-trained workers. Arches and columns are not simply decorative but serve as structural elements too. And everywhere there is a sense of light. . .
Miss Morgan was a woman ahead of her time. As in other fields in the early 20th Century, in architecture, her career was a benchmark when architects reluctantly opened their doors to women. With the diversity of projects she undertook, she also practiced architecture with an interdisciplinary approach, incorporating engineering, lighting design, landscape and interior architecture. She was very sensitive to her environment and was a member of the Hillside Club, an early group formed to protect the natural environs of North Berkeley hills and to promote a healthy, organic lifestyle. With her early homes, she was a considerable influence in the “First Bay Tradition.” Elegantly incorporating local materials, she expressed function simply yet firmly and always respected the local landscape. Later, in her larger commissions, she employs courtyards, breezeways, and verandas to connect indoors and outdoors. Not surprisingly, her vernacular designs are forerunners of today’s sustainable buildings.
In conjunction with the Festival, Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association sponsored a special tour of her buildings around the University of California Campus. Even though Miss Morgan grew up in Oakland and located her professional office in San Francisco, Berkeley rightfully claims her as an adopted daughter. Much of her work – residential and institutional – is concentrated in Berkeley. There are clusters of distinguished Julia Morgan residences throughout the town and some of her best non-residential commissions, from clubhouses to churches, are on or near the UC campus.
A cursory survey of this architect’s work illustrates that Julia Morgan was a great role model for all architects and for all women. As for the buildings, their quiet exuberance is always apparent. They speak for themselves.