An Architect From the Inside Out : JULIA MORGAN, ARCHITECT<i> by Sara Holmes Boutelle (Abbeville Press: $55; 265 pp., illustrated) </i>
When architect Julia Morgan (1872-1957) was once asked by a Berkeley professor to design a home “just like” one she had done for another professor, she asked him if he was, in every way, exactly like his colleague. His inevitably negative reply led Morgan to design for him an equally excellent house, but one that reflected his own individual needs and choices. This incident epitomizes the architect’s penchant for subordinating “style” to client, site, and program. “Before designing a house for someone,” historian Sara Holmes Boutelle observes in this splendid new critical study, Morgan “would visit the family, often sitting on the floor with the children and make every attempt to understand what the client wanted, however quirky. . . .”
After gathering such information, Morgan would concentrate on the plan, designing the building “from the inside out,” with the exterior allegedly of secondary importance. “Morgan delighted,” Boutelle asserts, “in the purposeful variation of scale. She used vaulted ceilings or left trusses open to extend the height of even small rooms and favored open plans that created a feeling of expansiveness, while sometimes juxtaposing that openness with an enclosed recess to give a sense of shelter and privacy.” Moreover, Boutelle insists, Morgan’s “affection for the California landscape infused her work, influencing her choice of styles, materials, and colors.”
Preoccupied with Morgan since 1957 when she first visited San Simeon, the spectacular “Castle” Morgan designed for publisher William Randolph Hearst, Boutelle has patiently reconstructed a maddeningly elusive history. Shortly before she died at age 85, Morgan destroyed almost all of her papers, drawings, and office records, rationalizing her action in the flawed belief that “since architecture is a visual, not a verbal art,” her buildings should “speak for themselves.” In tracking down the extant documents from clients and other sources, Boutelle was faced with a formidable detective job. The result is the first critical biography of the most significant and successful woman architect in the history of the profession. In a career that lasted more than half a century, Morgan designed more than 700 buildings, a large proportion of which were built.
Born into an established family in San Francisco in 1872, Julia Morgan graduated with a degree in engineering from UC Berkeley. At the time, she was Berkeley’s only female engineering student, though two women had preceded her there. With a foundation in engineering, she then decided to become an architect. Her sister, meanwhile, was preparing to become a lawyer, a commitment Boutelle finds “especially remarkable given the absence of any immediate role model: Mrs. Morgan wanted her daughters to fulfill their potential, but she also expressed all the traditional hopes that they would marry and repeatedly urged them to enjoy life rather than study so hard.”
With the encouragement of her Berkeley mentor, the great architect Bernard Maybeck, Julia Morgan left for Paris in 1896 to prepare for admission to the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Two years later she became the first woman to be accepted in the architecture section of that prestigious school of art. She completed her course at the Ecole and returned to San Francisco in 1902.
Prior to her years in Paris, Morgan had collaborated with Maybeck on various buildings in Berkeley, several of them funded by the remarkable philanthropist Phoebe Apperson Hearst. Upon her return, Morgan worked for the prominent architect, John Galen Howard, on more of Mrs. Hearst’s projects including the Mining Building and the Greek Amphitheater on the university campus.
In Phoebe Hearst, the young Julia Morgan did find a role model for assertive accomplishment. As a pragmatic visionary, the older woman had co-founded the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (1890); the National Congress of Mothers (1897), which later became the Parent-Teacher Assn.; and the Travelers’ Aid Assn. (1917). She was a leader in the movement to restore and preserve Mount Vernon as a national shrine and, in her eagerness to support the new class of working women, she gave massive support to the YWCA. Morgan benefited chiefly from her patron’s enthusiasm for California projects, which were continued in different ways after Phoebe Hearst’s death by her son, William Randolph.
Following the Maybeck and Howard collaborations, Morgan’s first independent commissions were for Mills College, Oakland, most notably a large concrete bell tower, library, gymnasium, and social center. Subsequently, in the building boom following the 1906 earthquake, Morgan’s career accelerated, as did that of most of her Bay Area colleagues. She did especially beautiful work in the Craftsman tradition of John Ruskin and William Morris, as developed in America by Gustav Stickley, Bernard Maybeck, and Charles and Henry Greene, who have always, until now, been put forth as her superiors. Boutelle argues convincingly that here, as in other areas, Morgan has been vastly underrated.
If one side of her training and personality responded to neo-classical “Beaux Arts” elegance, another side welcomed the Craftsman emphasis on “recapturing a simpler way of life, lived in harmony with nature. A building’s materials were to come if possible, from its own environment; simplicity and utility were the goals.” Numerous houses attested to Morgan’s brilliance in this mode, though her best Craftsman building was St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Berkeley (1908-10).
Morgan’s connection with Phoebe Hearst was her major introduction to what Boutelle calls “the women’s network,” resulting in such commissions as the Friday Morning Club, Los Angeles (1908) and the Woman’s City Club, Berkeley (1929-30). More significant, however, in the broader social sense were the structures sponsored by the YWCA and the Emanu-el Sisterhood for Jewish Women, which sought to provide “havens for young women flocking to the city to take relatively low-paying factory and office jobs.” In the teens and ‘20s, Morgan designed a series of such buildings in Asilomar, Oakland, San Jose, Vallejo, Pasadena, Fresno, Long Beach, San Francisco, Honolulu and Salt Lake City.
Mrs. Cecil B. DeMille chaired the building committee of Morgan’s Hollywood Studio Club designed “to house and provide recreational facilities for the endless stream of young women who came to Hollywood in the hope of establishing movie careers.” The 10,000 residents it sheltered over the years included such later famous names as Ayn Rand and Marilyn Monroe. Morgan met opposition from certain members of the board when she proposed that the San Francisco Chinatown YWCA provide private dining rooms and kitchenettes so the residents could occasionally entertain friends for meals. “But these are minimum-wage girls,” was the protest, to which Morgan replied, “That’s just the reason.”
Such commissions were more significant, socially and architecturally, than the lavishly eclectic pleasure dome that Morgan built for Hearst at San Simeon. Epitomizing Thorstein Veblen’s category of architecture as “conspicuous consumption,” the main building and guest houses contained 127 rooms: 58 bedrooms, 49 baths, 18 sitting rooms, two libraries, and two swimming pools, indoors and out. Adjoining the main complex were vast clusters of service structures and servants’ quarters, as well as a large zoo with cages for wild animals and more open spaces for the zebras and giraffes. San Simeon construction costs between 1919 and 1942 exceeded $5,000,000.
Boutelle rightly compares the facades of the main building at San Simeon to a famous 18th-Century Spanish-American church, San Xavier del Bac, at Tucson, Ariz., though the massing at San Simeon is far less graceful. This is due in part to Morgan’s expanding the scale of the two front towers from her original more felicitous designs after Hearst insisted that the towers be ample enough to contain large rooms. San Simeon would become a richly entertaining museum repository of Hearst’s treasured objects of art and of kitsch with occasional moments of architectural genius, but as a proto-Disney fantasy, it was less successful than the smaller Wyntoon, the resort complex that Morgan simultaneously designed for Hearst in the Bavarian style near the California-Oregon border.
“One may marvel,” Boutelle suggests, “at the contrast between Morgan’s sumptuous artfully planned pools and her own virginal and ascetic life style.” One longs for more observations of this sort that probe the inner life of a remarkable artist. Did she ever have romantic relationships? Did she miss not having a husband and children? Perhaps she considered her buildings to be her offspring and her well-paid, well-nurtured office staff of men and women to be her real family. In failing to deal more explicitly with, or even to speculate on, such matters, Boutelle indeed reflects the genteel reticence of her subject. Suggestive clues abound throughout her life, but Boutelle fails to probe them as deeply as she might have. During World War II, for example, Morgan served as foster parent for the son of one of her draftsmen, who was away in the service. She seemed to delight in supervising the child’s schooling and outfitting him “as a young gentleman.” After school each day, Boutelle recounts, “he would go to her office, look through her books, and do little tracing jobs. She took him to the newsreel movies every other day, to the zoo, to museums . . . to an amusement park . . . she told him they must watch Charlie Chaplin movies twice, once to laugh and again to appreciate the art.”
Boutelle’s timidity in exploring the connections between Morgan’s life and work is regrettably compounded in her ultimate understatement of her subject’s historical importance. Though this is preferable to strident overstatement, Boutelle does not press sufficiently Morgan’s truly great significance in social, architectural, or feminist history. With the help of Richard Barnes’ brilliant color photographs however, she does present a balanced, thoughtful, well-written sumptuously produced treatment of the work of an architect who now seems greater than we ever knew before. Boutelle’s seminal study will provide the essential base for all future work on Morgan and her world.
This long-awaited book was well worth waiting for.