Julia's Morgan's genius

Berkeley walking tour celebrates the woman who changed California architecture
Lisa Taggart

Architect Julia Morgan had a genius for moderation. Although she's known for building William Randolph Hearst's extravagant mansion at San Simeon, what made her work so memorable was her fine sense of proportion.

"Julia Morgan looked at the whole environment ― she never just plopped something down," says Sabrina Klein, executive director of the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts in Berkeley.

The East Bay city is where Morgan got her professional start. Today you can take a great walking tour of Morgan's public and private buildings near the campus of UC Berkeley, her alma mater.

Morgan's Craftsman aesthetic favored clean lines and a natural look, though there's a range of styles in the more than 700 buildings she designed. "She was one of the most prolific architects of the 20th century," says ranger Roxann Jacobus of the Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove. Morgan's accomplishments are even more impressive given that, as a woman, she was a pioneer in her field. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 1894, the only woman in the College of Engineering, and went on to become the first female architect licensed in California. She was also the first woman accepted into the architecture program at the premier École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Bay Area beginnings

Born in 1872 in San Francisco, Morgan and her family moved to Oakland when she was young. Contacts she made at Cal ― including her association with Craftsman architect Bernard Maybeck ― helped establish her architecture practice. And many of her early buildings were designed for sorority sisters in the Berkeley and Oakland Hills.

More Morgan artistry
Touring Julia Morgan's Berkeley

"She was a local girl. Naturally, her early clients were people she knew," says Lesley Emmington, preservation coordinator of the Berkeley Architectural Association, a nonprofit group that leads architectural tours.

One of Morgan's first projects was on the UC Berkeley campus itself: the Hearst Greek Theatre. Morgan supervised construction of employer John Galen Howard's design, made of reinforced concrete ― a technique new to the West. The project was so rushed that the stage's backdrop was still damp when President Theodore Roosevelt gave the commencement speech there in 1903.

In part because of her long association with the YWCA, Morgan became an expert at swimming-pool design. The opulent Neptune and Roman pools at Hearst Castle in San Simeon are two of the most memorable anywhere. In the mid-1920s, she designed three pools for UC Berkeley's Hearst Gym. The large outdoor pool links two wings and is presided over by towering Greek goddesses.

The exquisite little pool at the 1929 Berkeley City Club ― one of Morgan's grandest Berkeley structures, with Italian Gothic details ― evokes a lost era of opulence.

One of her best-known Bay Area buildings was built in 1908 as St. John's Presbyterian Church, now the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts. Using exposed beams and redwood on the interior as well as exterior, Morgan elegantly and inventively met the congregation's tight budget.

The original amber-colored windows and redwood electroliers (chandeliers) maintain the sense of sanctuary Morgan created, executive director Klein says. "That golden glow is what I love," she confides.

The theater's floor plan is echoed in the designs Morgan did at Asilomar. "She made the buildings look like part of the landscape," ranger Jacobus says. "At the Stuck-up Inn, the front room cantilevers out over the forest and gives you the sense of being in a giant treehouse."

Sadly, this architect who so emphasized balance was sent off-kilter in her 60s by inner-ear surgery. The botched operation also caused half of her face to droop. "For an architect, it is more or less embarrassing to present so unsymmetrical an appearance," she told would-be visitors.

But the perfect proportions of her buildings are enduring. As Morgan herself said, "They will speak for me long after I'm gone."