Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Build Your Dreams!

March 5 - Today's post contributed by Celeste Mannis

Build Your Dreams!
The Legacy of Julia Morgan, Architect

Julia Morgan

It is a joy to see Julia Morgan celebrated during Women’s History Month this year. The theme of “inspiring innovation through imagination” was made to order for her. As both a biographer and the mother of two young women, her story speaks to me.  Julia Morgan didn’t just dream of fairy-tale castles, she built them!

My unlikely introduction to Miss Morgan was through the pages of the New York Times Magazine, in a spread replete with evening-gown clad models draped like jewels against an opulent backdrop. A footnote identified the location as San Simeon, the legendary estate of William Randolph Hearst. What’s more, it had been designed and constructed by California architect Julia Morgan. “A woman?” I exclaimed, both surprised and intrigued. So began the research for Julia Morgan Built a Castle.

Julia was the product of a well-to-do Victorian family. A mining engineer by training, her father was also a hapless speculator.  Her mother, a cotton heiress, was a woman of tremendous discipline, intelligence, and intestinal fortitude. Charles and Eliza Morgan moved from Brooklyn to San Francisco shortly after the completion of the transcontinental railway in 1869, at just about the same time that a young William Randolph Hearst headed east by train with his mother Phoebe to begin his first European tour.

Julia Morgan as a young girl
Born in San Francisco, Julia settled with her family in Oakland when she was two years old. Never a typical girl, Julia preferred jumping on the trampoline in the family’s barn with her brothers to hosting tea parties with her sister. She had a habit of taking things apart to see how they worked, and then putting them neatly back together. She liked to tour construction sites in bustling San Francisco with her father, who would explain how buildings were engineered.

But not everything was goodness and light in young Julia’s life. Throughout her childhood, Julia’s family also experienced financial vicissitudes brought on by father Charles’ poor business sense. At one point, Eliza Morgan brought Julia and her siblings back to New York for an extended visit with her family while cash strapped Charles rented the family home and removed to a San Francisco “hotel” while trying to improve the Morgan family finances. This loss of the family home, and the traumatic absence of her father, while only temporary, no doubt contributed to the importance Julia later placed on being a financially independent professional.

While in New York, Julia contracted scarlet fever, which would result in frequent ear infections during her childhood. A frustrated Julia was often forced to stay indoors in spite of her youthful exuberance. This forced “confinement” may well have influenced much of her architectural work, which emphasized access to the outdoors and celebrated nature.

Through elementary and high school, Julia excelled academically, and was especially interested in math and science. When other girls capped off their graduation from high school with debutante balls, Julia opted to attend the University of California at Berkeley, the only female Civil Engineering major in her class.  She would have preferred to study architecture, but the nearest schools of architecture were back east and her parents did not approve of her moving away from home at such a young age. As it was, her brother escorted her to and from classes during her freshman year.

Upon graduating from the University of California with honors, Julia went to work for her mentor and friend Bernard Maybeck, a pioneering west coast architect, who soon encouraged her to apply to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, France. This she did, struggling to gain admission to the school for more than two years, before the French relented and admitted their first female architecture student. Even then, Julia was sometimes forced to sit in the hallway to hear lectures, as certain professors refused to allow a woman in their classrooms. All the while, Julia collected one accolade after the next, the result of participating in “blind juries” meant to weed out favoritism at the Ecole. This system, whereby projects were presented anonymously for judging, proved a blessing for the talented Miss Morgan, as it ensured that sexism did not come into play either. She won countless medals for her work, and  graduated, again, with honors.

Letters Julia wrote to friends and family during her student years in Paris revealed a woman as determined as she was gracious, as vibrant of mind as she was modest of manner. But later, Julia Morgan, architect, didn’t talk or write much about her own work. Instead, she felt her work should speak for itself. It does just that.

Classical proportions and flourishes reflect Julia’s Beaux-Arts training, especially in projects for universities and other major institutions. But a distinctly California influence shines through. Homes in particular seem to grow out of the natural landscape, not to dominate it. Julia created this “organic” feeling by building along the natural contours of sites, incorporating local woods and river rock into her designs, and adding decorative touches inspired by California plants and animals.

Yet Julia’s primary concern was that her buildings meet the needs of those they served. When building for a family she had the client’s children draw pictures of features they wished their home to include. Not surprisingly, many of these homes contain secret hideaways under stairwells, and mystery doors that lead nowhere.
St. John's Presbyterian Church, Berkeley

When Julia was hired to design Saint John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, her budget lacked enough money to paint walls and plaster ceilings – so she didn’t! Instead, Julia turned unpainted redwood walls and an intricate framework of structural beams and trusses into bold design elements. A potential problem became the catalyst for an architectural masterpiece.

A major commission to repair San Francisco’s earthquake-damaged Fairmont Hotel in 1906 was followed by an endless stream of commissions for homes big and small, women’s organizations, hospitals, churches, commercial buildings, and eventually even a castle. Every completed project was as well-engineered as it was beautiful.

Asilomar (Wikimedia)

Philanthropist Phoebe Apperson Hearst was one of Julia’s first patrons and dearest friends. Through Hearst’s influence Morgan became a key architect for the Young Women’s Christian Association.  Julia’s biggest project for the YWCA was Asilomar, a seaside conference center and summer camp for girls in Pacific Grove, California. Now a state park, this spectacular Arts and Crafts complex is still enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year.

Hearst Castle (Wikimedia)
But perhaps what Julia Morgan is best known for is the estate she designed and constructed for William Randolph Hearst on the central coast of California.  Built largely over a period of 23 years, from 1919 to 1942 (and never actually completed), San Simeon cost almost $5 million dollars, much of the construction being accomplished during the Great Depression.  Miss Morgan was well aware that she was creating a multitude of jobs, and thankful that she could. The main building on the property, La Casa Grande, is 60,645 square feet, and hosts 115 rooms, including 36 bedrooms and 41 bathrooms. The estate is 90,080 square feet overall, and sits on 128 acres of gardens. The sheer scale of the estate is mind-boggling, as is its guest list. Hearst did almost all of his entertaining at San Simeon, and over the years he was host to guests such as President Calvin Coolidge, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, playwright George Bernard Shaw, aviators Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes, and Hollywood luminaries such as Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Cary Grant.  San Simeon, the opportunity of a lifetime for any architect, sat securely on the shoulders of the diminutive Julia Morgan.

Hearst and Morgan
It is said that Hearst trusted three women in his life: his mother Phoebe, his long-time mistress Marion Davies, and his architect, Julia Morgan. I imagine Miss Morgan would chuckle at the notion.

Of all Julia Morgan’s projects, from tiny cottages to fairy-tale castles, my personal favorite is Dodge Chapel at Asilomar. This lovely sanctuary was designed as a place where young women could find inspiration and develop skills. Windows flood its polished wood interior with sunshine and frame lush forest views. Alcoves and movable partitions provide intimate spaces for study and conversation. And behind the altar, an enormous picture window overlooks windswept dunes and the boundless blue Pacific.

One glorious spring day, as I sat alone in the sanctuary, the warmth, light and grace of the structure filled my senses. “Build your dreams,” the chapel seemed to say. “Anything is possible.”

Celeste Davidson Mannis is the award-winning author of several works of non-fiction and poetry for children, including Julia Morgan Built a Castle, winner of the California Library Association’s Beatty Award. When she is not writing, Celeste enjoys teaching Children’s Literature: The Golden Age for the University of California at Berkeley. http://extension.berkeley.edu/catalog/course104.html She resides in Los Angeles with her family. 


  1. What a wonderful post! Thank you. I visited the spectacular Hearst Castle many years ago; I don't remember them mentioning Julia Morgan on the tour. Please tell me I'm wrong!

  2. I visited Hearst Castle many, many years ago. I remember being in awe of it. Thanks so much for introducing me to Julia Morgan. I'm looking forward to reading more about her in this book.

  3. It's so strange that I've visited Hearst Castle but never realized that his architect was a woman! How did I miss that?!! I loved learning about her! Thanks!

  4. Fabulous presentation of history in a fairy tale manner. Loved it! You, Celeste, as Julia Morgan, are a strong woman who is building her dreams. Anything is possible and, if one works hard enough, most probable. In your case,it is, dare I say, almost a certainty. Great blog written by a woman of substance. A woman I am proud to call my sister-in-law.

  5. This is as beautiful-written as Julia Morgan's designs. I am heading immediately to San Simeon. Talk about inspiration.

  6. It is fabulous here in WHM, to continue to be introduced to "new" women & the time in childhood that may have set them on their powerful path.
    Thank you to Celeste Davidson Mannis for reading photo credit lines in the great print newspaper, the NYT, & for teasing out an idea with an author's inquisitive mind. This is a lovely introduction to her style. I want to look for her children's poetry, this book & alsoo I hope to bring my family to the Castle & some of her other creations in CA, to see Julia Morgan's work. Brava! to Kid Lit Celebrates WHM.

  7. I think it's fasinating about the partnership between Hearst and Julia Morgan. The contrast of her more conservative bulidings and San Simeon is really amazing! Just goes to show that she was a true pioneer on several fronts, including forwarding the status of women in all professions. What an amazing role model!