The most famous architect you’ve never heard of: Julia Morgan

Hearst Castle is a sprawling property perched on a hill overlooking the ocean in San Simeon, California. The mansion is 110,000 square feet and consists of five buildings. There is an indoor pool, huge outdoor pools and landscaped gardens. The property has ranch facilities and a staff mansion that tends the duck ponds, zebras, lions, llamas and more. In total, the property is about 120 hectares.

When author Victoria Kastner first visited Hearst Castle, she was surprised to learn that California’s most iconic estate was designed by a woman most people had never heard of: architect Julia Morgan.

In her book, Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect, Kastner reveals more about Morgan’s life and career through interviews, letters, and Morgan’s personal journals. She found that Morgan was different from many women of the time.

There weren’t many women architects in the early 20th century, and most women didn’t work outside the home.

Victoria Kastner is the author of Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect, by Victoria Kastner. Credit: Chronicle Books.

Speaking of breaking down a new path, Kastner says of Morgan, “It was quite remarkable, especially when you consider that the female architects before her were either married to an architect and then inherited the business or started in an office.”

Morgan was an architect with the best qualifications imaginable. She was the first woman to graduate from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1902.

“She was really an ambitious person and one of America’s great architects,” says Kastner.

Morgan was born in 1872 and grew up in an elegant suburb of Oakland. She attended Oakland High School and was good at science. She decided to study architecture at UC Berkeley, and Kastner speculates that this may be because her second cousin married famed New York architect Pierre Lebrun.

Julia Morgan was 40 years old circa 1920. Source: Chronicle Books.

When Morgan enrolled at Berkeley in 1890, there was no architecture program there and she did her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.

“She was the only woman in construction to ever use it professionally. A few women had taken the course, but apart from Julia Morgan, nobody had made a career out of it,” says Kastner.

By 30 Morgan was a professional architect, but at the turn of the century it was unusual to be an unmarried career woman. After going through 800,000 words of Morgan’s correspondence and diaries, Kastner believes Morgan was solely focused on her career.

“If you look at all of those words and … dozens of interviews with staff, fans, family, there’s no indication of romantic relationships with anyone,” says Kastner.

The Roman Plunge at Hearst Castle, designed by architect Julia Morgan, features a 10-foot deep pool and is covered in Venetian glass mosaics. Credit: Chronicle Books.

She created her greatest masterpiece with William Randolph Hearst

Perhaps Morgan is best known for her work on Hearst Castle with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, whose philanthropic mother introduced him to her. For a decade the two collaborated on many projects, and in 1919, when Morgan was 47 and Hearst 56, they began what is now known as California’s most famous opulent estate.

Hearst was an art collector who genuinely loved architecture, and he trusted Morgan to be his collaborator on what would become the biggest build of her career.

“Maybe because [Hearst] He had such a strong mother that he had women in the highest positions in most of his businesses. His best reporters were women, his best screenwriters were women. And so he had no problems with Morgan’s authority,” says Kastner.

Hearst and Morgan would end up exchanging 2,462 letters and telegrams about the San Simeon project.

William Randolph Hearst and Julia Morgan work at Hearst Castle. Credit: Chronicle Books.

“The wonderful thing about it [their friendship] was, like each of them in this extraordinary collaboration, 28 years of construction, [the project] got the best out of each other,” says Kastner. “He gave in to her and respected and admired her. And she was able to build on a palatial scale that very few 20th-century architects could ever emulate.”

Give customers what they want

Despite her friendship with Hearst, Morgan’s architectural achievements mostly went unnoticed by the public. Later, when many architects discovered her work, which included 700 buildings, they wondered if she really had her own distinctive style.

“It wasn’t until the 1990s that architects started saying, ‘Wait a minute, why is it bad if you design what the client actually wants?’ If you hire Julia Morgan, she gave you the building you wanted,” says Kastner.

In 2014, the American Institute of Architects posthumously awarded Morgan the Gold Medal, her highest honor. She is still the only woman to receive this honor.

“It was because she cared so much about the client and she understood what architecture means. It’s security, protection, comfort, familiarity. It’s so much more to all of us than just four walls and a roof. And so she really believed… that whoever you were, you should be above the environment. And so she honored everyone with her building.”

Morgan used her civil engineering skills to create buildings that could withstand earthquakes, most notably the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. She helped rebuild the legendary Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco after the earthquake.

The Fairmont Hotel was remodeled by Julia Morgan in 1907 after being badly damaged in the 1906 earthquake. Credit: Chronicle Books.

In 2005, a 6.5 magnitude earthquake struck San Simeon and Hearst Castle was largely untouched. Kastner says only a few statues fell over and they had to repaint the bricks in a chimney and fix a few cracks in one of the swimming pools. She says Morgan’s creations were built to last.

“She had such an understanding of the technology of construction and the processes of engineering. … It is really true that these 700 [buildings]many hundreds still survive, and they are in beautiful form.”

Hearst Castle is now open to the public after a two-year closure due to COVID and road damage.

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