The tourists file into the red-and-gilt movie theater, dazed and footsore. For 90 minutes they have tramped around the Hearst Castle at San Simeon on the central California coast, overwhelmed by its rococo splendors. Now it’s time for a rest in what was once William Randolph Hearst’s private theater–and a look back at San Simeon when it was a magnet for the famous, rich and powerful of the world. A film flickers on the screen: there’s Marie Dressler clowning, Clark Gable mugging and Charlie Chaplin cavorting on the tennis court. And there’s Hears himself, standing with a wisp of a woman who reacts to the camera by covering her bespectacled face with a handful of papers. The narrator identifies her as Hearst’s secretary.
Hardly. She is Julia Morgan, the architect and master builder of San Simeon, who, under Hearst’s watchful eye, transformed a barren hill overlooking the Pacific into the site of what may be the 20th century’s most lavish and ostentatious residence (above). For nearly 20 years this teetotaling spinster, her hair tucked in a schoolmarmish bun, supervised virtually every detail of erecting and furnishing Hearst’s 144-room pleasure park. Since 1958, when San Simeon was opened to the public, more than 17 million visitors have seen the flamboyant fruit of Morgan’s labors.
For Julia morgan, however, San Simeon was a startling incongruity in a brilliant 46-year career. The first woman to graduate in architecture from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, she was one of San Francisco’s most renowned and prolific architects. Starting in 1902, she designed close to 800 buildings throughout California and the West, most of them as understated and beautifully proportioned as San Simeon is extravagant and jumbled. Several, like the Berkeley City Club (right) and the YWCA of Oahu, have landmark status; two–San Simeon and the Asilomar Conference Center on the Monterey Peninsula–are California state monuments.
This drab, soft-spoken woman–who “looked like a nobdy,” according to a former employee–is regarded by some as America’s most successful woman architect. “Who else has surpassed her?” asks architectural historian Sally Woodbridge. “No other woman has produced the volume of buildings she did.”
Why, then, have so few people ever heard of her? Because Morgan loathed personal publicity and did everything in her power to avoid celebrity. She shunned the press and refused to allow her name to be posted at construction sites. When she retired, she ordred all of her papers burned, believing that an architect should be like the usually anonymous medieval master builders who created Europe’s vast monasteries, cathedrals and castles. In Morgan’s view, a building should speak for itself.
She belongs with Cassatt and Wharton
When life ran a story on San Simeon in 1957, it never mentioned Morgan’s name. An irate art historian complained in a letter to the editor: “In American architecture she deserves at least as high a place as does Mary Cassatt in American printing, or Edith Wharton in American letters.”
But Morgan is finally losing her aura of mystery, thanks to the dogged efforts of architectural historians like Sara Holmes Boutelle. For 11 years, she has been tracking down information for her biography of Julia. Her crusade to publicize the architecths achievements began when she toured San Simeon in 1974 and a guide mentioned that the castle had been designed by Julia Morgan “but didn’t know any more about her. That got me started. I couldn’t get Julia Morgan out of my head.” With Boutelle’s help, the Regional Oral History Office of the University of California’s Bancroft Library recorded interviews with several of Morgan’s friends, relatives and former employees. Some of them are quoted, with appreciation, in this article. Since then, the Morgan-Hearst correspondence from San Simeon, as well as a smattering of personal letters, have been given to california Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo.
On one point, at least, there is no mystery: Julia Morgan’s success stemmed from talent and an obsession with her profession that virtually precluded any private life. Often working 14 hours a day, six days a week, she kept tight control of all aspects of her commissions–interviewing clients, sketching preliminary drawings, monitoring preparation of final working drawings and supervising construction.
Born on January 26, 1872, Julia enjoyed a comfortable childhood, thanks to her maternal grandfather, a millionaire cotton speculator. A small, frail child, iron-willed Julia rebelled against Victorian ideas of proper girlish behavior, preferring to cavort on her brothers’ gymnastic equipment and swing from the rafters in the family stable.
In civil engineering, a minority of one
By 1890, she knew that she wanted to have a career. Escorted to and from classes by her elder brother, she entered the University of California at Berkeley–one of only about two dozen women students. She chose architecture as her field of study. Because there was no school of architecture there, Julia enrolled in the civil engineering course–its only female student–where she learned about the mechanics of building but little about design (actually, she first assembled a unique air compressor for home use in the university). Providentially, she met Bernard Maybeck during her senior year. One of the most creative architects San Francisco has produced, he was then a 32-year-old instructor in the university’s drawing department. An eccentric who sported a waist-length beard and trousers that reached almost to his armpits, he was already working on the style of domestic architecture for which he became famous: houses of native redwood which would “climb the hill” on a “goat lot” and blend into the landscape.
Maybeck was so impressed by Julia that he became her mentor, inviting her to informal classes on architectural design that he conducted at his home. After receiving her engineering degree in 1894, she went to work for Maybeck, who encouraged her to further her training at his alma mater, the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. There was one hitch. The Ecole discouraged women from enrolling and had never admitted a foreign female. Arriving in Paris in 1896, Julia was told that the faculty “ne voudrant pas encourager les jeunes filles”–did not wish to encourage young ladies. She wrote that she intended to stay “just to show ‘les jeunes files’ are not discouraged.” Supporting herself by working as a draftsman for a French architect, she passed the rigorous entrance examinations and was finally admitted to the school.
Despite harassment from fellow students who poured water on her head and pushed her off the ends of benches, she excelled. Writing to her cousin, she noted that one teacher “always seems astonished if I do anything showing the least intelligence, ‘Ah, mais, c’est intelligent,’ as though that was the last thing expected.” In 1902, Julia Morgan was awarded a Certificat d’etude in architecture, the first given a woman.
At the age of 30, she returned to San Francisco to work for John Galen Howard, a brilliant New York architect who had been imported to direct an ambitious building program for the University of California. She helped design the elegantly classical Hearst Memorial Mining Building, donated by Phoebe Hearst in memory of her late husband, George, a roughhewn miner who had struck it rich. The Hearsts’ son, William Randolph, was a building newspaper magnate; he financed an 8,000-seat Greek theater on the campus, which Morgan designed to resemble the theater at Epidaurus.
Mrs. Hearst, a philanthropist devoted to women’s causes, was impressed by the independent Julia Morgan. The two had first met in Paris, where she had offered to finance Julia’s education at the Ecole–an offer that was declined. In San Francisco, Mrs. Hearst took Julia under her wing and later commissioned her to remodel a family hunting lodge. Meanwhile, John Galen Howard was boasting to his colleagues about his achievement in capturing Julia, “the best and most talented designer, whom I have to pay almost nothing, as it is a woman.” She left Howard in 1904 to open her own office in San Francisco.
Julia Morgan shunned the label “woman architect,” but from the beginning was architect of choice for prominent women such as Phoebe Hearst and for the women’s organizations to which they belonged. Her first major commission came from Mills College, a women’s college in Oakland, which asked her to design a campanile. She created a gem of a bell tower in Mission Revival style. She later designed Mills’ library, gymnasium and social hall.
The campanile, constructed of reinforced concrete, withstood San Francisco’s devastating earthquake in 1906–a fact that may have helped her win the task of rebuilding the Fairmont Hotel, which the earthquake had reduced to a shell. Jane Armstrong, a local reporter, decided to check out the amazing news that a woman had been put in charge of the Fairmont renovation. Standing with Julia in the hotel’s beautifully restored ivory, gold, gray and scarlet dining room, the newswoman assumed that the architect had done the interior decoration and gushed, “How you must have reveled in this chance to squeeze dry the loveliest tubes in the whole world of color.” Smiling, Julia replied: “I don’t think you understand just what my work here has been. The decorative part was all done by a New York firm…. My work has all been structural.”
It was the first–and last–interview that Julia Morgan is known to have given.
Her work on the Fairmont established her reputation, and from then on she had all of the commissions that she could handle. In the first dozen years of her practice, she and her staff, which numbered 16 architects at the height of her career, designed more than 300 homes, schools, churches, women’s clubs and other small institutional buildings, most in the San Francisco Bay area.
Known as an architect who sublimated her own artistic ego to accommodate the needs and desires of her clients (she never rejected them because they had little money to spend), Morgan was neither interested in innovation for its own sake nor in developing a style readily identifiable as her own. Instead, she designed buildings “from the inside out”–concentrating on interiors that were practical, convenient and elegantly simple. The exteriors were understated, sober and carefully balanced. In the case of her residential commissions, which made up the bulk of her practice, “the object was first of all to build a home,” said the late Walter Steilberg, her longtime structural engineer and a respected architect himself.
Eclectic in her choice of styles, willing to borrow from Gothic, Byzantine, Romanesque or any other period requested by a client, she usually added her own modifications. Often using the classicism of her Beaux-Arts training, she helped formulate a new form of architecture associated with Northern California’s increasingly casual lifestyle: wood for both interiors and exteriors, a look of informality and a blending of the building with the landscape. Her houses generally had a light and airy outdoorsy feeling, with an abundance of windows, courtyards and open porches. The pleasure of occupying a Romanesque Morgan house (p. 63) for 30 years is described by former owner Constance Braver as “like living inside a work of art–the proportions are so classically comfortable.”
Morgan was interested in structure–and in the use of structural materials as part of the design. In the Berkeley City Club, the soaring vaulted ceilings on the first floor are of unadorned concrete. The ornate club-hotel, Gothic and Romanesque in style, features cloister-style arcades that surround two interior courts (p. 62). She paid extraordinary attention to detail and had a passion for quality. When the Oakland YWCA was under construction, she personally inspected each of the thousands of tiny tiles which were to cover the building’s exterior columns, discarding those with even the tiniest flaws. She demanded perfection from contractors and laborers alike, expecting top-quality materials and worksmanship. Some contractors who hadn’t worked with her before took one look at the demure lady, barely more than five feet tall, and dismissed her complaints about what they’d done and how they’d done it. They did that only once: she could rip out faulty work with her bare hands. Said an employee: “Big men used to quail in her presence.”
Always immaculately dressed in a dark tailored suit, white blouse and ample hat, Morgan would climb 100-foot ladders and clamber out on scaffolding 13 stories above the ground to inspect construction. occasionally she’d be so busy inspecting that she wouldn’t watch where she was going and would fall to the floor below. One day a strong wind blew her three or four stories down off a scaffolding into a river. But the bruises and scars never deterred her from climbing up again. When flying was not yet commonplace, she hired a stunt pilot to take her up “to see what it was like,” and later chartered a Lockheed Vega to fly her to her farflung construction sites.
She liked young people, and her office became known to fledgling architects as a wonderful, if difficult, training ground. Walter Steilberg recalled that after he graduated from architectural school, a prominent San Francisco architect told him to go see Julia Morgan for a job. “I hadn’t even heard of Miss Morgan,” Steilberg said. “I looked a little startled and he said, ‘Don’t fool yourself, young man. She’s one of the best architects in this city.'”
“She was a perfectionist, and each job was a maximum effort,” said Dorothy Wormser Coblentz, one of several women who worked as draftsmen for Morgan. “Nothing was left incomplete … nothing was left to chance…. The pressure was terrible.” She would present a draftsman with an eight-inch sketch of a proposed building, just “a little scratch of something, and then you’d have to work from that…. You’d come to a place where you couldn’t go further, but you couldn’t try any other line of reasoning until she came back and gave you permission.”
Morgan thought of her staff as her children and herself as the stern but loving matriarch. Satisfied with only a few hours of sleep a night and sometimes only a candy bar for dinner, she felt that her employees should be as consumed with work as she was and seemed unable to understand why they might want a private life. Never interested in money, she divided the profits among the staff, keeping only enough to pay for her limited personal expenses and office overhead. “Her total earnings were seldom over $10,000 a year, and I don’t think any year she made as much as $15,000,” said her late nephew, Morgan North.
Julia’s true affection for children probably helped during her 30-year collaboration with William Randolph Hearst-a man whose willful behavior often tested her patience. When Hearst began work on San Simeon, he was the notorious lord of a publishing empire encompassing six magazines and 13 newspapers. The hallmarks of his newspapers were scandal, crime, sensation, exaggeration and downright fabrication. He was anathema to many (the North American Review called him “a blazing disgrace to the craft”), but increasingly rich and powerful. Hearst had gone into journalism at 22, after expulsion from Harvard for presenting chamber pots–engraved with their names–to his instructors. After making his first newspaper, the failing San Francisco Examiner, a success, he performed the same feat with the New York Journal.
Morgan at Beaux-Arts, Hearst at war
As a tactic in his fierce circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer’s New Work World, Hearst in the 1890s called for war with Spain over its occupation of Cuba. In a famous exchange of telegrams, artist Frederic Remington, whom Hearst had sent to Cuba, wired: “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.” Hearst wired back: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Goaded by the Journal’s inflammatory coverage of the sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor, Congress declared war against Spain in 1898–the year that Julia Morgan entered the Beaux-Arts.
Exulting in his journalistic influence, Hearst decided that he wanted political power as well, but except for two terms as Congressman from New York, he was doomed to disappointment. Foiled in his 1904 bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination (the year Morgan opened her office), he turned to his other passions–architecture, art collecting and Marion Davies. Hearst met Davies, a 1917 Ziegfeld Follies showgirl, promptly fell in love with her and decided to make her a movie star. His wife refused to divorce him, but he lived with Marion Davies, the true mistress of San Simeon, until his death in 1951.
In 1919 Hearst, by then a publishing tycoon, told Julia Morgan that he wanted her to build a few bungalows on his 275,000-acre ranch at San Simeon, where he and his family camped every summer. He had come across a style he rather liked, a “Jappo-Swisso bungalow.” They both laughed at the absurd name, little dreaming of the mammoth undertaking and monumental headaches that lay ahead.
Hearst insisted that he wanted simple, rustic structures with plaster walls and wooden ceilings. Morgan drew up set after set of plans; Hearst constantly altered them as he moved toward the florid, unrestrained style that would be San Simeon’s hallmark. What emerged were drawings for a twin-tower castle which dominated the crest of the hill, and three guesthouses which cascaded down the hillside, all surrounded by terraced gardens and groves of trees. The cost of construction, from 1919 to 1942, totaled $4.7 million.
An obsessive international art collector over the years, Hearst had amassed an amazing array of paintings, tapestries, carpets, beds, tables, secretaries, church statuary, mantels, columns, carved doors, choir stalls, window grilles, sarcophagi, wellheads–even stairways and ceilings. “Every time Willie feels badly, he goes out and buys something,” his mother once observed. Morgan soon realized that Hearst wanted San Simeon to be not only a personal retreat, but a museum for his hoard of treasures, which by then had overrun several warehouses. Hers was the task of integrating these disparate elements into a unified whole.
Even with Hearst’s original idea of simple bungalows, construction would have been arduous. The serpentine road climbing 1,600 feet from the foot of a chaparral-covered hill to San Simeon, a road that makes tourists uneasy even today, was only a dirt path in 1919 and was frequently flooded by rainstorms. At first, building materials were carried up the hill by horse and wagon, later by early-model Mack trucks that groaned their way to the summit at one mile an hour. Docks at the nearby Pacific shore were rebuilt for steamers that brought supplies from San Francisco; a camp was constructed at the base of the hill for workers. From the beginning, Julia Morgan was in charge of every aspect of construction.
San Simeon’s guesthouses, each a mansion in its own right, were built first. They were relatively simple: red tile roofs and white walls, with intricate grillwork and handpainted tiles. But Casa Grande, atop the summit, was a cathedral-like edifice made of reinforced concrete to withstand the strongest earthquakes, a wild mix of styles jammed with art treasures from many periods. Nor was the castle planned functionally; it grew to satisfy Hearst’s changing fancies and “didn’t give Miss Morgan and me a real chance to use her real talent as a planner,” complained Steilberg. “She was like a man playing the piano backwards.”
From the beginning, Julia was bombarded with detailed instructions, suggestions and admonitions from Hearst, who was eager to move in as soon as possible. Yet he repeatedly changed his mind about what he wanted, often after work based on the riginal designs had been completed. Once, according to Steilberg, Hearst was inspecting one of the guesthouses and decided, on a whim, to have a fireplace moved to another spot in the room. Six months later, he decided the move had been a mistake. He ordered the fireplace rebuilt in its original location. The workers, many of them top craftsmen in their fields, were infuriated, Steilberg said. “Some of them told me, ‘I can’t stand that, doing the best I can on something, and then having someone just come and tear it down because he hasn’t given it thought.”
Even as he made his changes, Hearst–astonishingly–complained to Julia about slow construction and high costs. She would sometimes lose patience and let him know, in her mild way, that building his dream house was far from an easy task. “The shortage of every kind of material and of workmen out here is incredible, from draughtsmen to window glass inclusive,” she wrote him in April 1920. “I had to take one of the modelers up to San Simeon this week and convince him that it was a ‘lovely place’ and then have him telephone…that I was veracious, before the cast-cement crew would agree to go up.” Workmen imported from San Francisco soften took one look at the isolated construction site and left, occsionally without unpacking, because “they didn’t like feeling so far away from things,” she added. They also didn’t like the lack of a paycheck. Hearst was notoriously slow in paying his bills and, said Morgan North, Aunt Julia “suffered the tortures of the damned” in staving off workmen and contractors who hadn’t been paid.
Morgan maintained her thriving San Francisco practice while supervising construction at San Simeon. Several times a month, she traveled down on the night train and spent a day or two at the castle. During her visits, Hearst paid little attention to anyone or anything else. In a little wooden shack in Casa Grande’s courtyard, which served as her office, the pair conferred for hours. And at dinner in the splendid 67-foot-long Refectory, Hearst would ignore the world-famous celebrities around him and speak only to Julia, sometimes sketching designs on his paper napkin.
An egregious error ends in orchids
In 1928, morgan underwent an operation for a chronically infected ear, which ended with the complete removal of her inner ear and permanent impairment of her equilibrium. Even worse, the surgeon accidentally severed a facial nerve, giving Julia’s face the paralyzed look of a stroke victim. She felt as sorry for the doctor as he felt sorry about his mistake, and every year sent his wife orchids to ease his guilt. Sometimes she delivered the flowers herself.
Morgan didn’t let her physical problems slow her down. Besides her work for other clients, she designed several more structures for Hearst, including the Examiner building in Los Angeles and three Bavarian-style cottages at Wyntoon (p. 66), Hearst’s 67,000-acre estate in Northern California. (He and Marion Davies took refuge in Wyntoon’s forest wilderness from 1942 through 1944 as an economy measure, but also to escape the possibility of being shelled at San Simeon by Japanese submarines off the Pacific coast.)
Julia still clambered over scaffolding, though often on her hands and knees because of her faulty balance. She jokingly spoke of the problems of walking down the street and trying to pass a drunk who was having balance troubles, too. But she was sensitive about her facial paralysis, refusing to go to dinner at San Simeon on the grounds that “an architect should never appear asymmetrical.”
During World War II, Julia, then in her 70s, began to phase out her practice. She later replaced architecture with travel and roamed Europe. But her mind was starting to fail: she got lost on foreign jaunts and searches had to be organized (a major problem was that she wouldn’t ask for help in finding her way). She died in 1957 at the age of 87, just six years after Hearst. She wanted no funeral and had told her nephew, “Please give me a quick tuck-in with my own.” At her death she was penniless. Her legacy: the buildings she had designed.