Iconic SF Architect Shares History of Hearst Castle
Following a long closure due to storm damage, Hearst Castle is scheduled to reopen on May 11, with tickets now on sale. A new biography tells the story of the building’s architect, Julia Morgan, the woman whose style has come to define San Francisco’s most famous buildings. We spoke to its author, Julia Kastner.
However creative a person is, however produced, it is often identified by a single work. Warhol will always be the one who painted a can of Campbell’s soup. Jay McInerney will never escape Big city bright lights. And architect Julia Morgan will forever be remembered as the woman who gave newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst his pleasure palace on a hill. But as Victoria Kastner reminds us in a new biography (and even architecture enthusiasts need to remind us), Morgan was much more than Hearst’s architect of choice.
The first thing to remember is that Morgan was born 150 years ago. And when she became the first woman to earn a civil engineering degree from UC Berkeley in 1894, most educated women were lucky if they found work as secretaries or teachers. As Kastner points out in Julia Morgan: an intimate portrait of the pioneering architect (Chronicle Books), this San Francisco native was never one to settle down. Brilliant and ambitious, she stormed the decidedly masculine Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and graduated, the first woman to successfully complete its rigorous academic program. Back home, she went to work in the office of John Galen Howard, who was directing a new master plan for the University of California, Berkeley – the favorite project of philanthropist Phoebe Hearst, mother of WR
Morgan started her own practice in 1904. One of her first projects was a steeple for Mills College, which she fashioned from reinforced concrete, a new material at the time. A number of residential commissions followed, along with the rebuilding of the Fairmont Hotel after the 1906 earthquake. While the Spanish Colonial Revival castle she created for Hearst in San Simeon casts a shadow over her career , at the time of his death in 1957, Morgan’s portfolio numbered more than 700 buildings in a variety of styles, from schools and churches to hospitals and theaters. “Her largest set of Arts and Crafts buildings was Asilomar, the YWCA’s summer retreat for young working women built along the shoreline south of Monterey,” says Kastner. “It’s very rustic and simple – the antithesis of San Simeon – but it expresses the same kind of thinking, blending the historicism and elegance of Beaux-Arts with the individuality of Arts and Crafts.”
Morgan had previously worked for Hearst on several projects, including a Mission-style headquarters for The Los Angeles Examiner, before drafting his first plans for his hilltop estate in 1919. In 1947, the property – which Hearst called La Cuesta Encantada (“Enchanted Hill”) – has come to comprise several structures with 165 rooms and 123 acres of delightfully composed outdoor space. Although open to the public since 1958, it took years before Morgan got it as the creator of one of the most gargantuan residences in the country.
“The life The magazine ran a 14-page cover story in 1957 and Julia Morgan’s name was never mentioned,” Kastner notes. “In the 60s, John Didion wrote an essay, ‘A Trip to Xanadu’ and never mentioned Julia Morgan either.” When Kastner first visited Hearst Castle in 1978 (she later became the site’s official historian), the guide said almost nothing about Morgan.
Although not unknown today (architectural historian Sara Holmes Boutelle published a landmark study in 1988), Morgan was never a household name. Neither as visionary nor self-promoting as, say, Frank Lloyd Wright, Morgan was fluent in a variety of styles and always put the client first, not her own imagination. Moreover, its historicist eclecticism could not compete with the juggernaut of the international style. But in his prime, Morgan held on. Highly qualified, endowed with an enviable capacity for work, she was at ease with both engineering and aesthetics.
“There were very few architects in America who designed on the equivalent scale of a palace, and they were both decades older,” Kastner observes. “One was Richard Morris Hunt, who designed the Biltmore in Nashville in 1896 and the other was Stanford White, who died in 1906 and designed the Newport Casino and the University Club in New York. She competed on the same playground and often outdid her male colleagues. She didn’t advertise, she was very private and self-effacing. But the job came to her because she was so outstanding.
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