Berkeley walking tour celebrates the woman who changed California architecture

Architect Julia Morgan had a genius for moderation. Althoughshe’s known for building William Randolph Hearst’s extravagantmansion at San Simeon, what made her work so memorable was her finesense of proportion.

“Julia Morgan looked at the whole environment ― she neverjust plopped something down,” says Sabrina Klein, executivedirector 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 andprivate buildings near the campus of UC Berkeley, her almamater.

Morgan’s Craftsman aesthetic favored clean lines and a naturallook, though there’s a range of styles in the more than 700buildings she designed. “She was one of the most prolificarchitects of the 20th century,” says ranger Roxann Jacobus of theAsilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove.Morgan’s accomplishments are even more impressive given that, as awoman, she was a pioneer in her field. She graduated from UCBerkeley in 1894, the only woman in the College of Engineering, andwent on to become the first female architect licensed inCalifornia. She was also the first woman accepted into thearchitecture program at the premier École des Beaux-Arts inParis.

Bay Area beginnings

Born in 1872 in San Francisco, Morgan and her family moved toOakland 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 herearly buildings were designed for sorority sisters in the Berkeleyand Oakland Hills.

“She was a local girl. Naturally, her early clients were peopleshe knew,” says Lesley Emmington, preservation coordinator of theBerkeley Architectural Association, a nonprofit group that leadsarchitectural tours.

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

In part because of her long association with the YWCA, Morganbecame an expert at swimming-pool design. The opulent Neptune andRoman pools at Hearst Castle in San Simeon are two of the mostmemorable anywhere. In the mid-1920s, she designed three pools forUC Berkeley’s Hearst Gym. The large outdoor pool links two wingsand 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 Gothicdetails ― evokes a lost era of opulence.

One of her best-known Bay Area buildings was built in 1908 asSt. John’s Presbyterian Church, now the Julia Morgan Center for theArts. Using exposed beams and redwood on the interior as well asexterior, Morgan elegantly and inventively met the congregation’stight 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 atAsilomar. “She made the buildings look like part of the landscape,”ranger Jacobus says. “At the Stuck-up Inn, the front roomcantilevers out over the forest and gives you the sense of being ina giant treehouse.”

Sadly, this architect who so emphasized balance was sentoff-kilter in her 60s by inner-ear surgery. The botched operationalso caused half of her face to droop. “For an architect, it ismore or less embarrassing to present so unsymmetrical anappearance,” she told would-be visitors.

But the perfect proportions of her buildings are enduring. AsMorgan herself said, “They will speak for me long after I’mgone.”

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