Architecture

Julia Morgan: Architect to Town and Gown

The pool at the Berkeley City Club, designed by architect Julia Morgan. Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2012

At UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, women currently make up 57% of the undergraduates studying for an architecture major, and about half of the architecture graduate students.

In the spring of 1894, when Julia Morgan (1872-1957) graduated from Cal with a degree in civil engineering, she was the only woman in her class. The university did not offer architecture courses at that time (the College of Architecture would not be founded until 1903, under John Galen Howard), and the only option open to engineering students who were interested in following an architectural career was to take an independent course in architectural design offered by Bernard Maybeck, held in his house.

Maybeck was selective. His design students were the crème de la crème and included an impressive array of future luminaries: Harvey Wiley Corbett (co-designer of New York’s Rockefeller Center); Edward H. Bennett (co-author of the Chicago city plan with Daniel H. Burnham); Lewis P. Hobart (architect of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral and Bohemian Club); John Bakewell, Jr. and Arthur Brown, Jr. (who would collaborate on the city halls of San Francisco and Berkeley); G. Albert Lansburgh (designer of many theatres, including the Warfield and Golden Gate in San Francisco, the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and, with Arthur Brown, San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House); and Loring P. Rixford (architect of the Sacramento City Library). Bakewell described the course as combining design theory and a period of practical application, during which the students worked on the additions to Maybeck’s house.

Hearst Memorial Gymnasium. Photo: © 2003 Alan Nyiri, courtesy of the Atkinson Photographic Archive

Julia Morgan was the only female student in Maybeck’s class. As a woman, she wasn’t required to do carpentry work on Maybeck’s house, but her brothers helped out.

Maybeck was quick to recognize Morgan’s talent and made her his protégée. After graduating from the College of Civil Engineering, Morgan began working in Maybeck’s private practice and was given responsibility for drafting and supervising construction of a two-story house for geology professor Andrew C. Lawson, at 2461 Warring Street in Berkeley (demolished in 1930).

It was Maybeck who urged Morgan to go to Paris and try for admission at the École des Beaux-Arts, where grueling entrance examinations eliminated most applicants. Morgan got in on her third attempt, and, in 1901, she was the first woman to earn a certificate in architecture from this exalted school.

While living in Paris, Morgan assisted Maybeck on the drawings for Hearst Hall, commissioned by Phoebe Apperson Hearst and destined to serve as a women’s gymnasium on the UC campus. More Berkeley work followed after the young architect’s return to the Bay Area; John Galen Howard engaged her to help supervise campus projects, including the Hearst Memorial Mining Building and the Greek Theatre.

Morgan obtained her state architect’s license in March 1904 and opened an office in the Merchants Exchange Building in San Francisco. By then, she had already designed El Campanil on the Mills College campus, and, within two years, she would take charge of reconstructing the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

During a 1907 interview with the San Francisco Call about her work on the hotel, the journalist (a woman) was impressed by the interior design and remarked to Morgan, “How you must have reveled in this chance to squeeze dry the loveliest tubes in the whole world of color.” Smiling, Miss Morgan replied, “I don’t think you understand just what my work here has been. The decorative part was all done by a New York firm. In fact, most of it was finished before the fire, and has been restored on the same lines and in the same tones. My work has all been structural.”

Morgan’s budding practice was fuelled mainly by commissions from women, beginning with Mrs. Francis M. “Borax” Smith’s gift to Mills College and continuing with the remodeling and expansion of Phoebe Apperson Hearst’s Hacienda del Pozo de Verona, in Pleasanton. Morgan also benefited from the vast women’s network radiating from her sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta. A number of the private residences she designed in her early career were for sorority sisters and their friends.

By 1908, Morgan was being described in the Call as “attaining prominence as a designer of buildings in San Francisco.” Two years later, while reporting that the senior women of UC were awaiting a campus site for their new hall (a Morgan design), the newspaper described her as having “achieved success as an architect.”

In the mid-1920s, Morgan was called again to work on a campus project. Hearst Hall, the women’s gymnasium designed by Maybeck in Paris, burned down in 1922, three years after the death of Mrs. Hearst. Her son, William Randolph Hearst, wished to erect a grand campus memorial for his mother that would include a new women’s gym, along with an art museum and an auditorium. He engaged Maybeck to design the complex.

Already in his sixties, Maybeck was no longer interested in the practical aspects of building. According to his biographer, Kenneth Cardwell, Maybeck “became more an artist, producing images that others would develop into drawings for construction. His concern narrowed, noticeably so in his larger projects, to abstract qualities of architecture — color, light, and texture.”

Enter Julia Morgan, the great expediter. She and Maybeck entered into an agreement allowing him to concentrate on design, while her office produced the construction drawings and functional details of a greatly reduced project, now confined to a women’s gym and swimming pools. It was she who provided for the bathrooms, showers, and dressing rooms that Maybeck had omitted in his plans.

Morgan was by then the preeminent pool designer in the West, having designed YWCA facilities throughout California and in Utah, Arizona, and Hawaii. Her Hearst Castle pools are the most celebrated, but Berkeley is fortunate in having a Morgan pool in the Berkeley City Club, which she designed in 1929.

The City Club, Hearst Gymnasium, and Girton Hall (originally the Senior Women’s Hall), along with several other Morgan-designed buildings, will be open for BAHA’s architectural tour on Sunday, Nov. 18.

BAHA’s House Tour, “Julia Morgan, Architect to Town and Gown” will take place on Sunday, November 18, from 12 to 4 p.m. Tour-day tickets will be available at BAHA’s headquarters, 2318 Durant Avenue (across from the Berkeley City Club). For information and advance tickets, visit BAHA’s website.  

Daniella Thompson publishes berkeleyheritage.com for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

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  • Sdinkc

    Nice article Daniella that is a good background for the Julia Morgan tour this Sunday November 18th. 

  • Marhoades

    Very nice piece. I wonder – has anyone counted the number of structures and homes she designed in Berkeley? 

  • Jessica Kleinman

    So percentage of female architecture students is not an accurate representation of the profession, in particular women with licenses, which is only 20%. Julia and her buildings are incredible, and I wish more folks would talk about how all encompassing her career was – no partner, no kids …

  • Daniella Thompson

    BAHA counted them and will be publishing a book on Julia Morgan’s Berkeley buildings.