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Heart Castle’s Primary Architect Also Broke a Lot of Glass Ceilings

Written by Cindy Marie Jenkins on Friday, August 25th, 2017 at 10:20am.

Architect Julia Morgan accomplished a lot of firsts in her career. Born on January 20, 1872, to father Charles Bill Morgan and mother Eliza Woodland Parmalee, she was the first and only woman to graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, with a civil engineering degree in 1894. Encouraged by her architecture mentor Bernard Maybeck, she worked to obtain entry at the acclaimed l'École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The school only admitted the top 30 candidates, and after one failed attempt and a second where her scores were suspiciously arbitrarily lowered, she succeeded on her third try. To make her feat even more impressive, the school had only said they would admit women a couple years earlier in 1897. She completed a certificate in architecture in just three years as opposed to the typical five, likely because she would soon “age out” of the program at 30.

It is not surprising, then, then Morgan was also the first woman to be a licensed architect in California, first working for John Galen Howard on the University of California Master Plan before opening her own firm in 1910. She is the most well known for her designs at Hearst Castle, but there is so much more to learn about this pioneer in her field.

  • Morgan designed over 700 buildings in the course of her career. Some were sweet bungalows for residences and others as sweeping as Heart Castle. Her colleague claimed that Morgan never stopped working, never stopped drawing.

  • In 2013 the American Institute of Architects posthumously awarded her the AIA Gold Medal, given "by the national AIA Board of Directors in recognition of a significant body of work of lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture." She was -- you guessed it -- the first woman to receive such an honor. Morgan is also only one of seven California architects to be honored.

  • In 1919, Morgan began work as the architect for La Cuesta Encantada, what you may know as Hearst Castle. She merged multiple styles, including Mission Revival, Spanish Colonial Revival, and Moorish Revival. Morgan worked on the ever changing and expanding designs until 1947, when work was stalled because of Heart’s health. Morgan’s hand was not limited to architectural designs either; she undertook all of the details, often calling upon specialists she knew from her time in Paris.

  • Many times throughout her career, Morgan worked on a design in order to advance progressive women’s causes and opportunities. Some of these projects were the YWCA and Mills College.

  • Her Californian roots shine through in Morgan’s architectural style, mixed with the Arts and Crafts movement. Earth tones, California Redwood, exposed beams and lines to merge with the surrounding landscape. Biographer Sara Holmes Boutelle wrote: “Her preoccupation with light, with the relationship of a structure to its site, with flexibility of plan … and with the use of color and decoration make her work relevant to contemporary designers.”

  • Contrary to legend, Morgan never destroyed any of her documents after retiring in 1951. She was actually quite meticulous in her preservation from correspondence through sketches and photographs. Her family gave the entire collection to California Polytechnic State University in 1980.

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