May West, Madame Curie, and Coco Channel. What do they have in common? Notoriety: we remember their names and what they did. In contrast, we might struggle to name a single female architect from that time period.
Though there are many coffee table books filled with pictures and stories about her projects, ‘Julia Morgan remains a mystery to this day,’ noted one of the Special Collection’s librarians at Berkeley.
As a student of architecture, I first learned of Julia Morgan a whole seven years out of school (in 1994), when one of my co-workers (in the home health care company where I was HR Manager) generously handed me a copy of a newspaper clipping. It had a picture of a 1950s-looking older woman wearing an up-do; the caption read: ‘Julia Morgan, Architect.’ I unfortunately dismissed it though I did pin it on my cubicle wall. I’m sure I read it, but perhaps my eyes glazed over at the mention of Hearst Castle (who cares?, I might’ve thought… associating it with the Patty Hearst news stories from the 1970s). The crux of Julia Morgan’s work and life had not yet resonated with me. I eventually took the article down and tucked it away at home where I held onto it all these years. I still marvel that I overlooked such a force– until years later when I finally visited Hearst Castle and stumbled upon their on-site movie about William Randolph Hearst’s life and how he came to build on the beautiful land at San Simeon. That movie struck a chord with me.
A Woman of “Firsts”
Julia Morgan was the first woman to graduate with a degree in Civil Engineering from Berkeley, and she was the first woman to be accepted into the esteemed Ecole des Beaux Art in Paris, graduating in less than 3 years from a program that was designed to take six years; and she was the first woman to become a licensed architect in California, starting her own successful architecture firm in San Francisco in 1904.
Now, in 2014, I’m proud to announce on this blog that Julia Morgan has a new first: she is the first woman architect in the history of The American Institute of Architects to be awarded (posthumously) The Gold Medal Award.
This decision had social media abuzz with tweets from Gen Y’ers saying: “Great that a woman will receive the Gold Medal. Too bad she’s been dead for 50 years.” Mostly, though, everyone agreed that it was long overdue and that Ms. Morgan was deserving of the honor.
The Politics of Architectural Awards
Choosing on whom to bestow The Gold Medal Award is a tedious task, fraught with politics. I became aware of this fact while conducting research for this article- but more on that later. Part of my research for this post had already been done last summer when I toured Hearst Castle at San Simeon a second time and went to a few libraries nearby. I had made specific plans to spend an early morning in the magnificent Special Collections Library at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (you must go there when you get the chance). I pored over old photographs of William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, actress Miss Davies. I held the original letters penned by Julia Morgan herself and correspondence from her client WR Hearst, scraping every bit of reality they contained. I read articles, more letters– some of them were surprisingly racy for that time period. Overall, it was a very fulfilling experience. I took many cell phone pictures. And with permission, I Tweeted a few images of one of the articles from an old Architecture Engineering Magazine featuring one of Julia’s projects. Hours fly by when you’re in such a setting. Putting the treasure back into the numbered boxes and returning the white gloves, we headed to UC Berkeley before they closed. I had called there in advance, too, but had reached a voicemail recording; I was taking a chance someone would be there to help me find what I needed. This was during the fluke post office strike and the parking situation was already tight. Once we made the final trek to the School of Architecture building, we were blessed to meet the librarian in charge of their Special Collections section- separate from the main library’s collection. She was extremely helpful, offering me information that might have taken years to uncover: a brilliant article written by Dr. Karen McNeill, PhD, entitled “Julia Morgan: Gender, Architecture, and Professional Style.” I was elated. It was an amazing gift that came right on time that Sunday afternoon as my travel-weary family waited patiently in the gray corridors of the grim Brutalist-era style architecture building.
A few weeks prior to this writing, I searched Dr. McNeill’s profile on LinkedIn to seek her permission to post a few quotes from her article. She kindly accepted my correspondence. (A sidenote for scholars: If interested, you might want to visit Dr. McNeill’s LinkedIn profile as it contains a bibliography of the articles she’s written on Julia Morgan. You can download them for a mere $8.00 per article).
My husband drove us back to our vacation home in Lake Tahoe while I read by car-light the 15 page essay- so carefully researched by Dr. McNeill- hoping to delve into the mind of Julia Morgan. I wanted to know what drove her, how did she manage to shatter invisible “glass ceilings” when our generation seems to still be mired in work/life balance debates. The article’s author offered many insights and facts that, I feel, might serve as encouragement to many students of architecture around the world. The message (if you read between the lines) is this: That women can be successful architects like Julia Morgan.
The Missing 32%
I think Julia Morgan would find us a curious bunch with our polls about where are the women in architecture. But, then again, maybe she wouldn’t. One can see that she had great empathy for her clients and her staff. She was spectacularly gifted, accomplishing more than many other architects throughout history– running a burgeoning, cutting edge fully-staffed firm on an upper level floor in a prominent skyscraper in the Financial District in Downtown San Francisco during the week while commuting 400 miles each way to assist Mr. Hearst in building his Castle and Zoo at San Simeon over a two-decade period. Ms. Morgan never married. Some might say she was married to her career. Malcombe Gladwell might refer to her as an outlier. An anomaly. She seemed to work tirelessly on all typologies from YWCA’s, to schools, to churches, to homes. Her first commission was from Phoebe Hearst. So, others of us might say she was just lucky. Talented and lucky… and rich (as her mom had inherited her own father’s wealth when Julia turned ten, affording her own dad a relaxed lifestyle that he could not enjoy being that it was not the era for men to be “stay-at-home” dads.)
She Was Ignored By Her Contemporaries
Why the shunning? I think there are a few key reasons: she was eclectic, not given to a specific style, she did not design tall skyscrapers (the tallest building she designed, to my knowledge, is the Camponile Tower at an all-girls college in Berkeley), she was not as domineering or flamboyant the way Frank Lloyd Wright was, and she wasn’t like the typical Howard Roark “Architect as god” in that she preferred to collaborate with her clients rather than dictate to him/her. And the obvious reason: she decidedly chose not to “flaunt” her work herself; instead, she carefully handled the press in her own sophisticated, meticulous way. If she were running a Social Media account in today’s world, I’ve no doubt she would be a stellar example to follow.
Julia Morgan had soared despite the many obstacles she’d faced: being a woman in a suffocating, male-dominated profession, braving the all-male ateliers of Victorian Era Europe, being the first woman to graduate from the Ecole des Beaux Art after having completed the required 6-year coursework in less than three years while caring for her brother, an invalid who’d relocated to live with her in Paris.
She was a full-blown architect, an exemplary professional who designed over 700 projects, the majority of which were built. It seemed she cared not that she was a “woman” architect.
I look forward to seeing her legacy honored at The 2014 National AIA Convention.
*****Please note: This article was written by Tara Imani and first edited and published by www.archh.com on their website on March 8, 2014. I’m re-posting it here (albeit with a few new edits of my own based on my original draft– prior to the formatting, editing, and photos added by the editors at Archh who worked their special magic to make the article shine). I decided to re-post this now, in honor of Julia Morgan on whom the American Institute of Architects will bestow The Gold Medal Award posthumously at this year’s AIA Convention to be held in Chicago on June 26-28, 2014. I am not yet able to provide a link to the originally published article; but please visit their site and look for “Julia Morgan: Breaking the Glass Ceiling.” ****