56 years after her death, Julia Morgan wins top award

Julia Morgan

Julia Morgan: recognition for her as an architect in her own right has been recent. Photo: Creative Commons

Last month, the American Institute of Architects awarded its highest honor, a Gold Medal, to architect Julia Morgan — 56 years after she had died. She is the first woman to ever be given the award.

Morgan, who practiced for 50 years and designed more than 700 buildings, studied civil engineering at UC Berkeley and caught the eye of the architect Bernard Maybeck, who taught there. After graduating from the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, Morgan returned to Berkeley where she went to work for John Galen Howard. That was the beginning of a long history of designing structures in Berkeley. Her name was in the news just last week when a building she designed on the Cal campus, Girton Hall, was relocated to the UC Botanical Garden.

Sandhya Sood, AIA, has a Masters in Architecture from UC Berkeley and is Principal of Accent Architecture + Design in Berkeley. Her research on the sustainability of Morgan’s work contributed to the success of Julia Morgan’s AIA Gold Medal 2014 nomination. Berkeleyside invited her to share her thoughts on Morgan’s work and influence:

Early publications on San Francisco Bay region architecture overlook the significance of Julia Morgan’s work. Her recognition as an architect in her own right has been recent, spurred by the Julia Morgan 2012 Festival and the AIA Gold Medal 2014 Award. Morgan’s sustainable design approach from a century ago is still appropriate, and is strongly linked to the Bay region’s geography, culture and climate, giving it timeless relevance. It is this approach that influences my practice. I believe Morgan’s work needs more attention, for it holds valuable lessons for us all.

wadsworth house

The Wadsworth House in North Berkeley. Photo: Sandhya Sood

Julia Morgan, FAIA was the only native Californian among the first crop of architects to propel the early Bay Tradition as distinct from the burgeoning Arts and Crafts movement of the time.

The Bay Tradition represents a vernacular approach to architecture in its native response to the site and its landscape, use of materials, their assemblage and the local climate. It developed distinctly from the Arts and Crafts movement by appropriating the regional vernacular, thereby planting the seeds for modernism and its tenet of living with nature. The Bay Tradition continues to influence contemporary architecture in the San Francisco region with its focus on sustainability and environmentalism.

Julia Morgan designed many buildings in the first phase of the Bay Tradition (1890-1920), especially in Berkeley and the East Bay: St John’s Presbyterian Church (now known as the Julia Morgan Center), for example, Girton Hall and many homes.

Perhaps the diversity in Morgan’s projects put some of her simpler, but just as influential, works in the shadow. Take the Wadsworth House in Berkeley (1908) designed for Mr. and Mrs. Euleta Wadsworth.

The house is set uphill and is barely visible from its access street in a North Berkeley neighborhood. Wrapped in weathered, gray redwood boards, a box with a gable roof on a clunker-brick base appears to grow from a verdant knoll, one among the many tree trunks that surround it. The changing light casts shadows with patterns of sweeping branches on leaded glass windows and the rough hewn texture of the lapped wall surfaces.

A brick paved path carved in the hillside reveals an intimately scaled porch, leading directly to the living room. Its soaring interior, punctuated with the rhythm of hand crafted redwood trusses exudes the calmness and nobility of a chapel, belying its unassuming exterior. A bank of south facing windows with rectilinear mullions stained pale green fill the front porch with light, filtered through dense foliage.

Wadsworth house

The Wadsworth House. Photo: Sandhya Sood

For half a century, this humble abode was a gathering place for prominent artists, authors, and especially musicians, such as David Park, Margaret Webster and Igor Stravinsky. The orientation and simple arrangement of the rooms has facilitated harmonious additions through a century of habitation. The house has changed hands only twice in over 105 years, delighting and adapting to several generations, including the current owners who find the house uplifting and thoroughly livable.

Morgan’s original design, created in her home office in Oakland called for a large, turn of the century California bungalow with a gallery, music room, open porches, balconies and latticed windows with decorative motifs. Interestingly, Morgan altered the design radically, stripping off the decoration and all secondary spaces but for an enclosed porch, creating a modest cottage.

An architectural expression of nature is expressed by using natural materials and integrating the house with its landscape, rather than alluding to it through stylistic ornament, as was prevalent in the Arts and Crafts movement. Morgan’s design iteration produced a house that complies with Charles Keeler’s ‘Simple Home’ (but without abiding by all the ‘rules’) more than any work of her peers, be it Maybeck, Averil Coxhead or Willis Polk.

Yet, the bold manner in which Morgan invokes the rural vernacular of the barn house for an urban locale presents her as a sophisticated architect, very early in her career. Even though the barn vernacular captivated many Bay Region architects — including William Wurster, Donlyn Lyndon, Joseph Esherick, and Mary Griffin — one would not conjure the image of a barn when thinking of Julia Morgan.

Morgan incorporates the vernacular directly and honestly, with all its attributes, rather than primarily for its stylistic or visual appeal. In its clean lines and contemporary vibe, the Wadsworth House could well have been designed a century later. The minimalism in Morgan’s work emerges from the elemental qualities of the vernacular, imbibing it with a certain dignity and warmth, revealing her ‘modernist’ sensibilities.

The Wadsworth House, rooted in place, holds the principles of the Bay Tradition.

Julia Morgan building to be moved across Berkeley (01.10.14)
Julia Morgan home for sale in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood (01.27.12)
Julia Morgan homes the stars of BAHA’s spring tour (03.11.10)

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  • Charles_Siegel

    In addition to her work in the Bay Tradition, Morgan did work in historical styles. The most notable in Berkeley is Berkeley City Club on Durant, in Moorish Gothic style.

    Modernists prefer the work in the Bay Tradition, as we can see in the conclusion of this article:

    “In its clean lines and contemporary vibe, the Wadsworth House could well
    have been designed a century later. The minimalism in Morgan’s work
    emerges from the elemental qualities of the vernacular, imbibing it with
    a certain dignity and warmth, revealing her ‘modernist’ sensibilities.”

    I honestly don’t know whether Julia Morgan herself preferred her modernist work or her work in traditional styles, but I don’t like the revisionist history that presents her purely as a proto-modernist.

  • Woolsey

    Agree, seems the antithesis of modernism. Wish we had more architects with her capabilities around now. So what period are we in currently – the anti-aesthetic?

  • Mbfarrel

    Got to agree with that. Unless you want to include traditional housing in so much of the world as proto-modernist. A yurt? Really?

  • guest

    Excellent report. Thank you.

  • Radha

    Fabulous article! It shows a side of Julia Morgan I didn’t know about.

  • Rich

    I think the author is trying to share a side and work of Morgan that is lesser known yet has contemporary relevance.

  • Charles_Siegel

    “a side of Morgan that is lesser known” “a side of Julia Morgan that I didn’t know about.” Are the commenters saying that they didn’t know that Julia Morgan worked in the Bay Tradition?? Haven’t they noticed Berkeley’s Julia Morgan Theater?

    The article makes two very obvious points – that Julia Moran worked in the Bay Tradition and that the Bay Tradition was based on honest use of materials without ornamentation, like modernism.

    This article is distinctive only because it leaves out two equally obvious points: that Julia Morgan also worked in historical styles, and that the Bay Tradition was (in part) a criticism of modern technology in favor of traditional crafts.

    The sort of modernist reinterpretation of earlier architecture has been a commonplace of academic criticism since the 1950s, when critics began to say that Gothic cathedrals were proto-modernist, yurts were proto-modernist, etc.

    There was a time during the 1970s through the 1990s when post-modernists were criticizing this sort of modernist dogma.

    But modernism has taken over the academy again – though it hasn’t taken over architectural practice completely. It is sad to see a recent architecture graduate writing an article with a point of view that comes straight from the 1950s.

  • Brian

    Thanks for sharing a lesser known project to illustrate the sophistication of Julia Morgan’s design skill. In contrast to her more well known works like Hearst Castle and Berkeley City Club, the quiet simplicity of her vernacular work like the Wadsworth House is still relevant to clients and architects today – warm, uplifting and thoroughly livable. Timeless principles of good design. I doubt that Morgan would have seen much value in debating how she should be labeled – modernist, traditionalist. . . that was clearly not her style.

  • Charles_Siegel

    It was clearly not Morgan’s style to debate whether she should be labeled modernist or traditionalist, but it is the style of this article. To quote the article’s conclusion:

    ” In its clean lines and contemporary vibe, the Wadsworth House could
    well have been designed a century later. … revealing her ‘modernist’

  • Ron

    Good article. Thanks for the 101 on Bay Tradition and the insight on Julia Morgan.

  • Brian

    The term ‘modernist’ can take on a wide range of meaning, depending on your perspective. From an architectural history perspective, modernism didn’t start and stop with architects who prefer steel, glass, and concrete; it constantly evolved over time and still shows up in a variety of contexts. Aspects of both modernism and Arts & Crafts tradition can be seen in Morgan’s work just as they can be seen in Japanese vernacular – without being contradictory.

    Adolf Loos’ ‘ornament is crime’, Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus, Le Corbusier’s ‘machine for living’ as glorified by Philip Johnson’s 1932 ‘International Style’ propoganda can find their origins in Frank Lloyd Wright’s early work via the German-published Wasmuth Portfolio and De Stijl, despite Johnson’s attempt to belittle Wright’s influence. Wright’s early work was heavily influenced by Japenese vernacular and the Arts & Crafts movement, which can also be seen in the work of Maybeck and Morgan. Wright’s later modernist Usonian houses (incl. Falling Water) were heavily influenced by the 1930s International Style, yet displayed an unparalled sense of warmth and connection to place. Then came 1950s California Modern with the case study houses and Eichler houses. Today, we have Dwell Magazine portraying ‘modernism’ as a way of life.

    I don’t see this article as an attempt to re-interpret the motivations behind Morgan’s work and label her as a modernist, but rather an opportunity to point out that aspects of Morgan’s work still have value to modernist architects working today. Another writer could make the same statements from a traditionalist perspective and they would be equally valid. We each see in art what we want to see in it. If our perspective is different from yours, that doesn’t make us wrong (or sad). Just different.

  • Kate

    Great article! Very insightful

  • Lalit Goel

    Great article. Thanks to Ms. Sood for her research on Julia Morgan’s work which contributed to Morgan’s nomination for 2014 AIA Gold Medal. Keep it up Ms. Sood.

  • Charles_Siegel

    This article is getting a lot of perfunctory one-liner comments – comments that are strongly favorable but that obviously did not require much thought.

    I wonder why.

  • Charles_Siegel

    There are many refutations of this sort of perspectivism, going back to Socrates’ arguments in Plato’s Protagoras.

    I think the decisive refutation is by Aristocles of Messene, who applies perspectivism to the perspectivists’ own epistemology, showing that it is self-contradictory.

  • Indrani

    Great article ! Insightful, well-researched…..

  • Elizabeth

    Quote: “A notable characteristic of Modernism is self-consciousness, which often
    led to experiments with form, along with the use of techniques that
    drew attention to the processes and materials used in creating a
    painting, poem, building, etc”

    As stated in this fine and informative article by Ms. Sood, “…revealing her (Julia’s) modernist sensibilities…” I think we all know that Julia revealed those sensibilities without talking about them, or possibly not even mentioning the word “modernist”. When movements and ideas are evolving, moving through time, and trying to be understood, researched, judged, etc. ad infinitum, sometimes artists, architects, etc. reveal through their designs a prescience. In the case of Julia and and her choice of design, I would guess that her modernist sensibilities were not completely on a conscious level but intuited, to an extent.

    Whether or not Ms. Sood has borrowed theory from the 50’s is irrelevant. The ideas, and her choice of focus for this article, are timeless.

    Hoping for more articles by Sandhya.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Julia Morgan won an AIA prize because of an article interpreting her as a 1950s modernist similar to Mies van der Rohe.

    I bet she could also win a Pritzker prize, if someone wrote an article interpreting her as 1990s avant gardist similar to Frank Gehry.

    Of course, she never called herself an avant gardist, but
    “I think we all know that Julia revealed those sensibilities without
    talking about them … I would guess that her avant gardist sensibilities were not
    completely on a conscious level but intuited, to an extent.”
    In other words, she was really like Frank Gehry or Mies, even though she didn’t know it herself.

    Anyone who is not indoctrinated in modernist architecture can judge for themselves by looking at:
    — Julia Morgan Theater at
    — an archetypal modernist building, Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building at

    Both “drew attention to the processes and materials used in creating a painting, poem, building, etc” Nevertheless, you have to be very dogmatic to believe that every building that draws attention to processes and materials is in the same modernist style.

    Massing and detailing are also important – and here Julia Morgan’s buildings have much more in common with traditional and vernacular building than with modernism. Morgan practiced what Christopher Alexander called “the timeless way of building” regardless of whether she was working in the Bay Tradition or in historical styles. Mies and most modernists clearly did not.

    Mid-century modernist architectural theory believed that expressing a building’s materials and processes is all important – but by now, we should have enough experience to see that this is not true. Just comparing Morgan and Mies should be enough to show it is not true.

    It is pathetic to see that today’s architects are still echoing mid-century theory, with its naive focus on technology. It is like urban planners saying it is great to build freeways through cities or like chefs serving mass-produced Wonder Bread.

  • North Berkeley Neighbor

    So how come I can’t find anyone to design my three storey, brushed steel, frosted glass yurt? I have the permits and everything.

  • Brian Feagans

    Julia Morgan’s selection for the AIA Gold Medal was the result of a highly coordinated effort to honor Morgan’s contribution to the profession and society, led in part by AIA California Chapter and a Steering Committee, to which the article’s author contributed. We should all be thanking those who made this happen, including Ms. Sood, because Morgan’s selection has benefits that go well beyond the award itself.

    As part of the nomination effort, letters of recommendations were written by prominent architects and California Leaders. Here are excerpts from recommendation letters in support of Morgan’s nomination that include modernists, avant-gardists, post-modernists liberals, and conservatives alike, all who all drew inspiration from her work. You’ll see that Ms. Sood’s point of view is shared by many:

    Maria Shriver: “Through the buildings she created… [Morgan] influenced the world of architecture, the woman’s movement and our notions of hospitality.”

    Frank Gehry, FAIA: “Looking at her work, one can find her playing with symmetry asymmetrically, slipping forms vertically and horizontally, orienting her buildings for climate and daylight, and expressing structure in new ways, pointing the way to Modernism on the horizon,”

    Diane Feinstein: “Julia Morgan is unquestionably among the greatest American architects of all time and a true California gem. . . Morgan’s legacy has only grown over the years. She was an architect of remarkable breadth, depth, and consistency of exceptional work, and she is widely known by the quality of her work by those who practice, teach, and appreciate architecture.”

    Michael Graves, FAIA: “Morgan experimented with formal strategies of place making and symmetry before Modernism emerged, and she adapted historic motifs with modern ease, showing us how to revere history and design for a new era.”

    Denise Scott Brown, FAIA: Morgan “was a game changer from the get go.”

    Lynn Forney McMurray, Morgan’s goddaughter: “She was an architect ahead of her time; she designed her houses for her clients. She considered what they wanted and then let them know if their ideas were possible.”

    Sara Holmes Boutelle, biographer of Morgan: “Her preoccupation with light, with the relationship of a structure to its site, with flexibility of plan, with indoor-outdoor living and with the use of color and decoration make her work relevant to contemporary designers.”

    AIA: “Although by the time of her death, in 1957, she would see her Beaux-Arts background overshadowed by the rise of Modernism, reappraisals of her work make it clear that her approach to building materials and construction was more forward-looking than initially thought. . .extensive body of work has served as an inspiration to several generations of architects.”

  • kishore kapoor

    it is a well researched article