Julia Morgan – Architect

What does it take for someone ahead of their time to shine? In the case of Julia Morgan, the architect who designed and built Hearst Castle, it was the courage to implement her vision at a grand scale at a time when women had no place in her field.

A recent visit to Hearst Castle, sparked my interest in the story of this pioneering woman who dared to go where most women a hundred years ago would find impossible to fathom.

Though naturally reticent and reluctant to promote herself, Morgan was a renegade. Born into an affluent San Francisco Bay Area family in 1872, she bucked the traditional path for women of the time by attending the University of California, Berkeley, and majoring in civil engineering. (It was the closest thing to a major in architecture, which the school didn’t offer then.) Her mentor, the great Bay Area architect Bernard Maybeck, urged her to continue her studies at his own alma mater, the prestigious, all-male École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Morgan took his advice, becoming the first woman to graduate from the École in 1902. After returning to California, she worked for the architect John Galen Howard. By 1904, she had opened her own office, one of the few woman-owned firms in the country. “She came of age at the dawn of the Progressive era, when women were really beginning to feel the frustration of not being able to use the skills they had learned in college,” says historian and Morgan expert Karen McNeill. “She had chutzpah and moxie. This incredibly competitive woman was not going to be deterred from pursuing her dream because she was born with two X chromosomes.”

She was commissioned by Hearst’s mother to remodel and complete her mansion, and then Hearst got her to build the Mission-style Examiner Building in Los Angeles in 1915. When Hearst inherited the family’s 250,000-acre ranch in 1919 following his mother’s death, he wrote Morgan complaining of the rustic conditions at “Camp Hill”: “Miss Morgan, we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something.” Over the course of almost two decades, she transformed Hearst’s favorite place in California to a grand mansion with the architectural grandeur of Europe.

As a woman in a male dominated field, when I was at the Castle, I sensed her struggle: What she must have gone through to prove herself and how she did not give up until her vision became reality. May we all be brave enough to follow our dreams and allow our talents and strengths to shine!