Julia Morgan

Julia Morgan was a groundbreaking female architect who worked on over 700 buildings during her epic career, paving the way for women in a male-dominated profession.

Julia was born to a wealthy family in San Francisco 1872. She was the second of 5 children and excelled at maths at an early age, encouraged by her mother. When she was still young she met her mother’s cousin, the architect Pierre Le Bron, who sparked in her the desire to become an architect too.

As an eligible young woman from a successful American family, it was expected that Julia would have a debutante or ‘coming out’ party, which would introduce her to society and announce her availability for marriage! Julia wasn’t too keen on the idea however, and managed to convince her parents that it was more important that she pursue a career instead, unusual for a girl in her position at the time.

She went to the University of California to study civil engineering, and was the only girl in her class. While there she was mentored by Bernard Maybeck, an architect in the California Arts & Crafts Movement. He suggested that she might follow in his footsteps and continue her studies at the prestigious L’Ecole Nationale et Speciale des Beaux-Arts in Paris. At the time the school didn’t admit women, but Maybeck had heard rumours that they would soon be changing the rules. And so in 1896 Julia travelled to Paris to begin swatting for the entrance exams.

A group of French female artists had been petitioning for the school to admit women, and in 1897 they capitulated and allowed women to take the entrance exams. Julia wasted no time and sat the paper, however the college would only accept the top 30 entrants, and on this occasion she placed 42nd. While this was still an amazing achievement, it was not good enough. Not to be discouraged Julia doubled down with her studies, gaining experience in local architect offices, and re-sat the entrance exam the following year. This time she got into the top 30 but was still rejected after the school falsely lowered her marks; the real reason was that they “did not want to encourage young girls.”  Annoyed, but not put off, Julia wrote in a letter home:

“I’ll try again next time anyway even without any expectations, just to show ‘les jeunes filles’ are not discouraged.”

On her third attempt Julia placed 13th out of 376 candidates, demonstrating skill and knowledge which couldn’t be denied. She was finally admitted to L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts. However, just as she overcame one hurdle, another presented itself. The school only allowed people to study there up to the age of 30, which meant that Julia had less than the normal time to gain the neccessary points needed for her certificate. With just months to go before her 30th birthday in 1902 she submitted designs for a grand theatre, which were so outstanding that she earned her certificate in architecture. Normally it would take a student 5 years, it only took Julia 3! She became the first woman to receive the qualification from the college.

While she’d been in Paris studying she took the opportunity to travel around Europe, studying the many different types of architecture she discovered and filling countless notebooks with sketches and paintings.

After she received her certificate she returned to San Francisco where she found employment under John Galen Howard. She worked on a number of buildings at the University of California with him, but eventually decided she would leave and set up her own office. Perhaps after his remarks that, although she was an excellent draughtsman, he could get away with paying her peanuts because she was a woman.

In 1904 she baceme the first woman to get an architects licence in California and over the next few years she went from success to success. She did work for Mills College, and all female college, including an innovative bell tower. When there was a large earthquake in California in 1906, her bell tower was one of the few buildings to remain standing. Because of this Julia’s reputation grew, and in the aftermath of the quake she earned several significant commissions. When a journalist heard that she was working on one particular building he was most curious to hear that there was a woman architect, and believed that, as such,  she must be an interior designer. When he questioned her about the decorative elements he assumed she was leading on, she explained that she was actually more involved in the structural side of things, to which he seemed somewhat bemused!

Her most well known work was commissioned by William Randolph Hearst. In 1919 he contracted her to work on his family ranch, La Cuesta Encantada, which became better known as Hearst’s Castle. The project was huge and would continue for the next 28 years of her life. She worked on several buildings on the huge estate, including a zoo! Julia didn’t just design for the project, but was involved at every level of the undertaking, right down to the design for the tiles and even procurring animals for the aforementioned zoo!

One part of Hearst's Castle
One part of Hearst’s Castle

Julia was keen to advance opportunities for women with her work, and almost a third of her buildings were for women’s organisations and colleges. She designed 28 buildings for the YWCA, across 15 different American cities in California, Utah, Arizona & Hawaii.

Julia was a very private person; she never gave interviews and not much is known about her private life. She didn’t marry or have children, rather absorbing herself in her work. A colleague said that it wasn’t unusual for her to work 18 hour days. She retired in 1951, at the age of 79 – having led on the design and construction of over 700 buildings.

Julia Morgan, 1926 Studio Portrait
Julia Morgan, 1926 Studio Portrait

Her legacy as one of the greatest female architects has endured. In 2008 she was admitted to the California Hall of Fame and in 2013 she became the first woman to ever receive the American Institute of Architect’s Gold Medal, their highest award (shocking really since the award has been going since 1907!)

I’ll leave the final words to Julia, who gave away so little about herself:

“My buildings,” she said, “will be my legacy. They will speak for me long after I’m gone.”

Find out more…

This online exhibition charts Julia’s life and includes many of her original drawings.

Julia’s greatest project, Hearst Castle, is open to the public. If you’re in the area, why not visit and see her work upclose?

Watch this video by the American Institute of Architects about Julia’s life:

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