In 1910, Julia Morgan — the first woman licensed to practice architecture in California, and one of the most sought-after architects in the United States — hired the young San Francisco engineer Walter Steilberg. Decades later, Steilberg looked back on his first week with Morgan at a job site downtown. “There was a ladder going from the thirteenth floor clear out over California Street to a scaffold,” he recalled. Suddenly, stepping lightly down the rickety ladder came Morgan, who wore trousers under her long wool skirts for just this purpose. When she casually suggested that her employee climb up to view the construction work above, “I was scared to death,” Steilberg remembered. “I think she was one of the most fearless people I have ever known.”
Fearless is a word that comes to mind often when reading Victoria Kastner’s new book, Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect (Chronicle Books). Born in San Francisco, California, Morgan was the first woman to earn a degree in civil engineering from UC Berkeley, and the first woman to study architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris since the school’s founding in 1648. Not only did she withstand harsh hazing from her male peers — who taunted her, poured water over her head, and pushed her off of benches — but she completed the rigorous program in three years instead of the customary six. Morgan navigated the challenges of designing and executing more than 700 building projects on the earthquake-prone American West Coast, and dealt with powerful clients including William Randolph Hearst, one of her long-time patrons. In her late 60s, she began a series of solo journeys around the world by freighter, something that would still be considered fearless, if not absurd, today.
Despite her many accomplishments, Morgan has largely been forgotten. Kastner’s book resurrects the architect’s professional impact on the field of architecture and on the California landscape. The author details the pioneering techniques behind notable structures like Hearst Castle and San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, as well as the many schools, churches, theaters, hospitals, and charity clubs that Morgan built. The author also weaves in diary entries, letters, and interviews with the architect’s coworkers and family, giving us a glimpse at Morgan’s elusive, unique personality. Kastner’s book reveals Morgan to be a humble hard worker and devoted friend, who shied away from media attention and accolades throughout her life.
As the first woman in her position, Morgan was badgered by the press, who were often more interested in debating her looks and femininity than in evaluating her work. As a result, the architect often refused to be photographed, give interviews, or accept awards. But another reason for Morgan’s relative obscurity is that she didn’t work in a single mode. Her diverse projects span Spanish, Mediterranean, Gothic, Neoclassical, and many other styles, but they typically use natural materials and emphasize California’s stunning vistas. Rather than imposing a single vision across all of her projects, Morgan adapted her designs to her clients’ needs and tastes. Throughout her career, Morgan listened; that takes courage, too.