Press "Enter" to skip to content

Design Icons: Julia Morgan

Julia Morgan (1872 into 1957) was a prolific California architect who made over 700 buildings in her long career, most in her home nation. Nevertheless, one project overshadows them all the California hilltop property for William Randolph Hearst that goes by its place title, San Simeon, as well as La Cuesta Encantada (“The Enchanted Hill”) or just Hearst Castle. As we will see, her abilities extended to easier dwellings too, and of course colleges, churches and lots of buildings for benevolent organizations such as the YWCA.

Having a fascination with structure in the young age, Morgan pursued an engineering degree from the University of California at Berkeley on the advice of her own brother. After receiving that undergraduate level in 1894 (the first woman to accomplish this) she received more information, the time from coach Bernard Maybeck, who invited her to attend the esteemed École des Beaux-Arts at Paris. She failed the entrance examinations twice but learned that the college had failed her because it did not need to encourage young girls. Undeterred, she went through the process again and was approved two decades later, becoming the first female graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts upon receiving the certificate in 1902. At a bit of foreshadowing, Phoebe Hearst, mother of W.R., provided to cover for Morgan’s education in Paris, which Morgan graciously declined.

Upon returning to California the exact same year, Morgan worked at an architect’s office but ventured out on her own in 1904, after getting registered to practice architecture in the nation. This made her the first female architect in California, following similar firsts at UC Berkeley and the Beaux-Arts. Her status as a woman in a man’s livelihood has described much of her legacy, but the manner by which ” her life was work — dawn, day and night,” according to one worker, is how she should be remembered. This mix of talent, love of architecture and untiring work ethic is what allowed her to create so many buildings and also to work on one of the biggest residential commissions of almost any given time and any place.

Notice: Of Morgan’s three projects below, Hearst Castle provides the most popular public excursions. The Annenberg Community Beach House offers periodic public tours of the Marion Davies Guest House. The John G. Kennedy House isn’t open to the general public.

Hearst Castle

While the home for writer and heir W.R. Hearst didn’t start until 1919, what better place to start looking at Morgan’s livelihood than at San Simeon? Morgan worked with Phoebe Hearst as the official architect to the national YWCA at the West, but in 1919 Phoebe died. Then her son approached Morgan about designing a simple bungalow on the property he inherited. The project would occupy three decades of her career, as it grew from one building for Hearst and his mistress, actress Marion Davies, to a major house with over a hundred chambers, three guesthouses, indoor and outside pools, and over 120 acres of gardens and recreational grounds.

Anchoring the palatial residence would be the twin towers of the main home, a building that sums up the eclectic nature of the structure — Spanish Renaissance has been an inspiration, but other historical styles abound. Morgan balanced those stylistic jumps born from Hearst’s purchase of artwork and other artifacts from overseas travels; the home and other buildings act as containers for these pieces, becoming a museum where the structure occupies what’s inside.

The scale of Hearst Castle makes some sense when seen relative to the property W.R. inherited: 250,000 acres — one-third the size of Rhode Island — roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The grounds and buildings are but a very small percentage of the property, but in addition the project draws parallels with Versailles and Hadrian’s Villa, homes for a king and an emperor. At San Simeon cash and private enterprise create the identical centuries later.

Morgan’s Beaux-Arts training is in great evidence in places like the outside Neptune Pool, modeled on Greek classicism.

The indoor pool displays a much different character, thanks to numerous mosaics that it took over three years to finish. It’s called the Roman Pool, but the mosaics situate it at the days once the empire was based at the East and Constantinople.

The Great Depression affected the construction of Hearst Castle, but work continued gradually throughout the 1930s, and also the building reached its present state by 1947. This Morgan and Hearst started working together over 10 years before the crash guaranteed that the majority of the grandeur and opulence of the place was realized, although strategies to get additional wings (like there may be) had to be shelved forever.

Pictured is the Gothic Suite, the private living quarters of Hearst and Davies that occupies the entire third floor of the main house. It’s but one of many parts of Hearst Castle that can now be toured by the general public.

What tourists don’t see, but they are worth pointing out, would be the houses in the village of San Simeon for the families of five of their estate’s senior staff that Morgan oversaw the design and structure of. No commission was too small or insignificant in Morgan’s eyes, another testament to her skills and her love of architecture.

Marion Davies Estate

In the late 1920s, Hearst commissioned Morgan to design a home on just more than 4 acres on the Gold Coast of Santa Monica, California, for Marion Davies. Morgan designed five buildings at a Georgian colonial design, but the beachfront mansion with 34 bedrooms revealed here was the heart of the estate. The $7 million project included three guesthouses and two pools.

The majority of the buildings have been demolished as the land changed hands, and this particular stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway shifted from private enclaves into semipublic areas, primarily beach clubs. The sole surviving building that Morgan designed is the guesthouse, along with the pool, seen here abutting the road; compare this historical photograph to some Google Street View today.

Ying-Hui Hsu

Today the guesthouse and pool make up a part of the Annenberg Community Beach House. It started in 2009 with added facilities designed by Frederick Fisher. As you can see here, the modern addition is significantly different than Morgan’s Georgian colonial, but the concrete pylons replicate the long-gone veranda of the mansion.

John G. Kennedy House

At a highly advocated Julia Morgan online exhibition from Cal Poly, the architect is portrayed as a “designer of simple dwellings and stately homes.” The latter certainly applies to the two commissions for Hearst and Davies, while the John G. Kennedy House in Palo Alto, California, is but one of many straightforward dwellings that Morgan produced primarily in the first phases of her career.

The front elevation, seen here, has a casual but assured demeanor to it. The clear entry and balcony are balanced from the chimney that permeates the clay-tile roof.

The Spanish colonial revival style is found in the plain white surfaces, red tile roofs and arched openings. The latter are carried throughout the home, elevating the feeling of movement from one area to another.

While Morgan is referred to as a architect masterful with traditional styles instead of with the contemporary idiom arising in the first half of the 20th century, this home hints at the opening up that would take place following its 1922 layout and realization (click photo for expanded view). The heart of the home is the family room, what’s called the loggia on the plan, though it’s an enclosed area adjacent to the living area and kitchen.

The living room is evident in this back elevation: It’s behind the big windows and glass doors at the middle of the drawing. (Upstairs is a glass-enclosed stair that is set back from the loggia’s windows.) This side of the home is much more private than the front, so it is reasonable that the windows are larger and the family room is situated here.

This perspective of one of those windows at the family room reveals just how competent a architect Morgan has been, irrespective of scale, design or budget.

There’s a palpable calmness and warmth exuded here, as you can see in the photo. In a feeling, sitting by this window and looking upon the garden was the middle-class equivalent of what W.R. Hearst could have done at Hearst Castle; the setup has been thought out as closely as anything at that well-known work.

More info on visiting Hearst Castle
More info on visiting the Marion Davies Guest House

See related