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The Roman Pool at Hearst Castle, designed by Julia Morgan. Photo via Getty Images.

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How Julia Morgan Gave California Women Space for Leisure

For much of her professional life, California architect Julia Morgan was on the move, scaling the scaffolding of her projects, traveling up and down the state each week to visit construction sites. Responsible for over 700 buildings, she worked long hours at her firm's office in the Merchants Exchange Building in San Francisco. In her spare time, she enjoyed hiking the hills near her vacation home in Monterey, outpacing her niece and nephew well into her 70s. Ironically, many of Morgan's most inspired spaces are ones of great peace and leisure. Working with a group of socially conscious women, Morgan helped change the landscape of urban building. She would spend much of her career creating elegant, efficient communal living spaces for many people, from working class city girls to one of the richest men in the United States.

Julia Morgan was born to a wealthy family in San Francisco in 1872 and grew up in a large Victorian home in nearby Oakland, graduating from Oakland High School in 1890. In an age when the vast majority of women did not go to college, Morgan enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley. Already set on becoming an architect, inspired in part by a relative who practiced in New York, she majored in civil engineering. Even more uncommonly for a woman of her time, she lived in her sorority house instead of at home. Here, she got her first taste of institutional living and the freedom and companionship that came with boarding with her contemporaries. "Living at the sorority house helped cut the apron strings," explains Morgan scholar and historian Karen McNeill. "She could focus just on her schoolwork and not have to go home and have domestic responsibilities."

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Encouraged by her instructor, the architect Bernard Maybeck, Julia moved to Paris after graduation to study at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, where she was the first woman ever admitted. For her first year in Paris, she lived at the strict American Club for Girls, a home dedicated to "vulnerable"(i.e. young and single) American female artists. "It was perfect for the first year because it helped her transition into this foreign place," says McNeill. But soon "she realized she wanted to entertain and break away from the rules and constraints of such an environment." In 1902, Morgan received her certificate of completion from the Ecole. In 1904, she became the first woman licensed to practice architecture in California.

Morgan came on the scene as wealthy women were asserting their power through social welfare projects all around the country, and in Morgan they found the perfect partner. In the 19th century, women's groups had mostly repurposed existing buildings for social institutions. At the beginning of the 20th century, their industrial-capitalist husbands began dying, leaving the women the money for new buildings. These widows also took a much more active role in public life, working on the front lines of campaigns to raise additional funds. "Morgan had that fire and that spark and determination of her own," McNeill says. "That was then fostered by this confluence of women, institutions, and money all coming together in urban building to make that really the core of her career."

California women in general, and Julia Morgan in particular, had no bigger champion than the socialite Phoebe Hearst. Now known mainly as the mother of William Randolph Hearst, she was a tireless benefactress to not only UC Berkeley, where she gave Morgan one of her first commissions, but of the Young Women's Christian Association. The YWCA, which originated in Britain, came to the U.S. in 1858. Local YWCAs worked to provide safe housing, training, and recreational opportunities for the thousands of women flooding American cities during the first half of the 20th century. With her experience as a young woman in the big city and her ability to build elegant, complex structures relatively cheaply and in a variety of styles, Morgan would work happily on various YWCA projects for two decades.

Julia's first big commission for the YWCA was Asilomar, the organization's national conference center. Phoebe Hearst donated 30 acres of beachfront property in Pacific Grove, California. Over 16 years beginning in 1913, Morgan designed 16 rustic buildings on the property. Done in a minimal Arts and Crafts style and utilizing California woods and rocks, the "buildings really blend into the landscape, and you really get that sensibility of a love for the environment," McNeill says. According to biographer Ginger Wadsworth, Julia strived to "make the center a retreat where members could rest and renew their spirits." Here, women—who many still believed should remain sedentary and indoors—slept in Morgan's ingenious tent houses and laughed together around floor-to-ceiling fireplaces in spacious common rooms. Today, Asilomar is California's second most popular state park, after another Morgan creation, Hearst Castle.

In 1913, Morgan also began the Oakland YWCA, the first of numerous local YWCA chapters she was to build, including ones in Pasadena, Riverside, Fresno, Hollywood, San Francisco, San Diego, Salt Lake City, and her personal favorite, Honolulu, Hawaii. She also designed many non-YWCA women's clubs and residences, including the exquisite Berkeley Women's City Club, the Phoebe Hearst Memorial Gymnasium for Women, and two versions of her old sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta. She drew on her own experiences living in a sorority and boarding house, as well as input from young women. Women who boarded with her at her home in San Francisco in later years would remember her coming into their rooms and making polite inquiries about their design choices and needs.

[Two views inside the Berkeley City Club. Photos by Hadley Meares.]

Morgan's belief that women paying nominal fees to live in these residences should have more than just a bed and basin often put her at odds with the powers that be. Women on the boards of the organizations for which Morgan built "were very much entrenched in the class system," McNeill says, "so they didn't feel the need to create entertainment opportunities—that's just fostering sin. But Morgan had been there" as a young woman and respected the residents' requests for kitchen and entertaining spaces. So she put in cheap, reliable Pullman kitchens, normally used on trains.

A board member on one project recalled that Morgan "wanted…to have a room where the girls could do sewing…and have a little beauty parlor, and could do their laundry…the next time we were together she planned these rooms…She just quietly did what she wanted to do." When members of the YWCA in Chinatown asked for a gym where they and their children could exercise and play sports safely, Morgan built them a beautiful gym that doubled as an auditorium. And although she probably never learned to swim due to inner ear problems, she became a master builder of innovative, elegant pools that were expressions of women's expanding freedom. In 1934, Morgan would tell a correspondent, "I have 22 pools now in operation and have come to some quite definite conclusions." Among those conclusions, McNeill says, is that the pools and recreational spaces were among the most important aspects of the YWCAs. The women "wanted to be free. And the clothes they had to wear—think about how freeing a pool would be even in those heavy, hot bathing costumes."

Julia Morgan would design grand recreational areas for a totally different kind of client through her work with William Randolph Hearst. If Phoebe Hearst was Morgan's fairy godmother, then W.R. was her scheming, dreaming little brother. The two shared a great love of the natural wonders of California and adventurous natures. Throughout the 1920s, Morgan worked on Hearst's San Simeon and various YWCA projects concurrently——and the two complemented each other. Both generally required changing rooms, lockers, and spaces that comfortably fit large, boisterous groups.

With Hearst, Morgan constantly had to contend with a new piece of ancient Greek sculpture or an entire medieval European room that he had bought. Rather than being exhausted by Hearst's never-ending acquisitions and ideas, she was inspired by them. At San Simeon's Hearst Castle, Morgan created two of the most breathtaking pools in America. The massive "Neptune pool," considered by many architects to be "the most sumptuous swimming pool on earth," was built with Vermont marble around an ancient Roman temple facade. The exquisite indoor "Roman pool," inspired by the Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy, is covered in exquisite smalti glass tiles of deep blue, orange, and fused gold.

[The pool at the Berkeley City Club. Photo by Hadley Meares.]

Morgan closed her practice in 1951. She died in 1957. In December, the American Institute of Architects posthumously awarded her its 2014 Gold Medal, making her the first woman to receive the award. Morgan herself would probably take pride in the fact that many of her structures are still used for a variation of their original purpose. On a recent visit to the Berkeley City Club, members swam in the beautiful lap pool, read in the peaceful library, and conversed in the center courtyard. Julia Morgan increased the quality of life for thousands of people, from the working class to the country's elite. But every night, she went to sleep in a spare room on a plain cot. In Dr. McNeill's words, "She wasn't really in it for herself."

—Special thanks to Dr. Karen McNeill

Further reading:
· "Women who Build," by Dr. Karen McNeill (California History, Volume 89)
· Julia Morgan, Architect of Beauty, by Mark A. Wilson
· Julia Morgan, Architect, by Sara Holmes Boutelle
· Julia Morgan, Architect of Dreams, by Ginger Wadsworth

Editor: Sara Polsky

· How Women are Climbing Architecture's Career Ladder [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]


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