A House That Julia Morgan Built

She designed Hearst Castle, she was a pioneer in earthquake retrofitting and she designed nearly 800 buildings in the Bay Area. Take a look inside one.

Julia Morgan 5-Bedroom

Photo by Zillow A steal at $4 million, this five-bedroom home in San Francisco's tony Laurel Heights is a beautiful example of a legendary local architect's style. 

Quick — how many female architects can you name? How about ones that owned their own firm? How about ones that did as much to define an area as Julia Morgan?

Trick question. I was talking about Julia Morgan.

Berkeley is the city just across the Bay from San Francisco that's home to the flagship University of California campus, culinary mecca Chez Panisse and the Bravermans from TV's Parenthood. It's got a huge personality. And architecture-geek visitors immediately realize that the Arts and Crafts Movement is revered to the point of being fetishized. The City Council uses a Charles Rennie Macintosh-inspired font as part of its branding, for heaven's sake. And the doyenne of the East Bay, the grand dame of local architecture, is most definitely Julia Morgan.

Her name adorns buildings she designed and built, such as an exquisitely warm and sturdy theater (originally a Presbyterian church) and a destination ballroom, but most people first hear of her as the designer of San Simeon, that fabled fortress of William Randolph Hearst.

Playwright Belinda Taylor, who has created a dramatic biography of the beloved architect that earned terrific reviews and a handful of awards last year (and possibly soon to become a major motion picture!), says that Morgan doesn't get the respect she deserves — but that her own fierce desire for privacy is part of the reason why.

Born in 1872 to a genteel family, it was her mother's family money that often kept the family afloat while her father gamely attempted various business ventures. "Her mother was very forward-thinking," says Taylor. "She saw herself as a New Woman and believed women deserved a bigger role in society. She was an early feminist, and instilled that in both her daughters." Julia's sister was an attorney, though she never practiced, choosing instead to marry and raise a family. Julia, well, Julia was another story.

She was the only female engineering student in her class at the University of California at Berkeley; one of her math professors was Bernard Maybeck, who became an equally legendary Bay Area architect and lifelong friend. He heard that the Ecole des Beaux-Artes in Paris might start accepting women soon, and encouraged her to apply. With a helping of chutzpah that's hard to even fathom, she up and moved to Paris, studying European architecture while she waited two years to be admitted. She returned with the certain knowledge that she had a calling, and that her life would be devoted to creating architecture. Buoyed at first by assignments from socially prominent women, Morgan instantly proved herself: A tower she built at Mills College, which was derided for being overly reinforced, survived the 1906 earthquake, and in the aftermath of that quake, she was much in demand. Not as a woman architect. As an architect, period.

"She was a physically tiny woman, but tough, very tough, and determined," says Taylor. "She was a pioneer who simply saw herself as independent, and made it so. She was self-reliant, determined. She understood her abilities and apologized for nothing." She was also way ahead of the curve on earthquake retrofitting: As accomplished an engineer as an architect, not one of her buildings has sustained significant earthquake damage. 

When designing a home, she designed "from the inside out," with the family's needs in mind. "She paid attention to their habits and desires. She would create reading nooks for avid readers, 'secret' hideaways for children and, in every home, as many fireplaces as she could manage." As a child, she'd been an active tomboy until a near-deadly bout of scarlet fever; after that, she was kept inside much more than she liked, and the need to get outside seemed ingrained in her.

In true Arts and Crafts fashion, her homes are bathed in natural light from wide windows, with easy access to the outdoors, and she had a wide network of artisans who created tile, pottery and detailed woodwork. But she could design in any style; she returned from Europe with a colossal reference library, always available to her staff, with minute style details and precise measurements for many architectural styles. She's revered for her Arts and Crafts work, but she was just as likely to design in an eclectic array of styles.

"She had the ability to put herself in the shoes of other people and see what they would want," says Taylor. "She was very close to her niece and nephew, so even though she never married or had children of her own, she had family all around." Her staff was devoted to her, from her site foremen to her secretary. She was funny; she was tough. She loved Charlie Chaplin and physical comedy, but when a mishap on a job site drenched her, she swore her staff to secrecy. One night, working late, she tried to book a room at a hotel near her office rather than making the long trip home. But single women weren't allowed to do such a thing, so she walked to the ferry instead. 

So why is she such an enigma? Why are other architects revered around the globe, while Morgan-worship is a strictly Bay Area phenomenon? "She wouldn't do interviews, she wouldn't do her own PR the way Frank Lloyd Wright did," says Taylor. "She was a genius — of personality, of color, of beauty, of engineering, of finding craftspeople — but she adhered to a strict rule of letting her work speak for itself. And her legacy has suffered for it."

Julia Morgan is part of the Bay Area zeitgeist: a native daughter, a product of the university, a businesswoman and architect who literally helped design a city already noted for its eccentricities. She designed some 800 buildings, so it's entirely likely that one would be able to own one. Take a walk through this exquisite recently sold example, a steal at $3 million.

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