New biography of pioneering architect Julia Morgan
When The life The magazine ran a 14-page cover story in 1957 about San Simeon’s imminent opening to the public, no mention was made of an architect, which explains how things went for the next few decades. It would have been fine with Julia Morgan, the enigmatic designer of San Simeon (the California palatial estate of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst) and about 700 other distinguished buildings. Morgan was one of the most prolific, modest and elusive figures in the history of the profession, as this month Julia Morgan: an intimate biography of the pioneering architect, by Victoria Kastner (Chronicle, $32.50), demonstrates and decodes. She is also among the most accomplished: the first woman to graduate from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, in 1902, an honor marked by the fact that she became the first female recipient of the AIA Gold Medal, posthumously. in 2014. Kastner, who was the official historian at San Simeon, was told on her first visit that “an architect named Julia Morgan built the whole estate, but we don’t know anything about her.”
The range of Morgan’s work in its entirety is magnificent, and his appreciation has grown in recent years. But Julia Morgan’s career and legacy is also about something else: she is a member of one of the most intriguing clubs in the world, that of the women who built the myths of great men. Women like Belle da Costa Greene, the librarian at JP Morgan (the subject of a new novel, Beautiful Greene, released in June), which is why we have the Morgan Library in Manhattan as we know it today. In the end, Julia Morgan built more than a single home for a powerful man; she built such a visually compelling backdrop that she allowed
Hearst to become one of the great characters in American life. Epic mythos require pictures to hang them. Do we really think there would have been a Citizen Kaneat least the story that is important to us, without Xanadu?
San Simeon, or simply Project 503, as it was known in his office for nearly three decades, remains Morgan’s most fascinating work. Obviously it’s because of the mystique associated with the location, but also because no matter what we may know of it, the disconnect between personality and product remains compelling. How could the decadence of something like the Neptune Pool, which architect Charles Moore deftly describes as “a great liquid ballroom, for the gods and goddesses of the big screen”, be evoked by such a small Quaker figure? ? How did Hearst recognize in Morgan the vehicle for interpreting his dreams? The answer lies in the rigor of his Beaux-Arts training; Morgan had a head full of palaces and operas he had already designed as a student in Paris. That she returns home to California to build them is one of the most unexpected events in a life full of them.
Hearst and Morgan met in 1902 or 1903, possibly at the dedication of the Greek Theater’s Berkeley campus. In 1903, Morgan was working for Hearst’s mother, Phoebe. Hearst’s son, WR Jr., described the way his father worked with Morgan, the playfulness and mutual respect: “Beneath that impeccable attire and highly professional demeanor lurked a steely trap spirit and a will to iron. She and Pop had real screams, let me tell you, but both were so formal and understated that a stranger would hardly have noticed…Julia and Pop referred to themselves as “fellow architects”, and both had a good laugh about it.”
There is a humanity to Morgan, parallel to his relentless drive, that is essential to understanding and appreciating his full character. She was constantly interested in other people’s children; it’s hard to imagine anyone busier, but Morgan took the time to get an employee’s son to see Charlie Chaplin movies twice: “once for a laugh and once to enjoy the film.” ‘art’. The most successful architect in San Francisco, she bought a car and a house from an employee. She also inspired humanity in others: Project 503 was a 28-year collaboration, and she and Hearst were very close. No matter how many movie stars were in attendance for the weekend, Miss Morgan was always seated to her right at dinner. In the second half of their tenure together, there is a tenderness in their relationship, as Morgan’s health declines. He wrote to her in 1934: “I will naturally take care of everything concerning [the car and driver Hearst supplied for her to tour Europe]and all you have to do is sit down and be a good girl, which I know is very hard for you to do.
Careers like Morgan’s depend not only on talent, but also on the willingness of ships of that talent to dedicate their lives entirely to their work. It was the deal, and to achieve Morgan’s result there would have been no other way. She did not have or desire a social life to speak of; she never married and had no family of her own, although she was close to her brother Avery, who was for a time her driver. These were his choices, made without regret. She was simply dedicated to her craft and accepting all the consequences, a decision she made as soon as she recognized the opportunities her work ethic offered her. These people are particularly rare, but Morgan’s domain is a good place to look for them. When I was in architecture school a long time ago, I overheard a very serious and driven classmate ask her how she envisioned her career, exactly what kind of practitioner she wanted to be. “A nun at architecture” was her response. I wanted to tell her all about Julia Morgan, but I didn’t think she would believe me.
This story appears in the March 2022 issue of City & Country.
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