To be born into a progressive, upper-middle class family was a decided advantage in 1872, especially if the child happened to be an ambitious, intelligent girl.
Julia Morgan, Charles and Eliza Morgan's second of five children, was described as willful, fearless, and not afraid of hard work. Despite frequent bouts of illness, she—as one family member put it—had "the constitution of an ox."
When their daughter showed excitement at the thought of designing and constructing buildings, her parents happily took her on tours of Oakland to investigate construction sites. One of Julia's major influences during her youth was the celebrated New York architect Pierre LeBrun, a cousin by marriage. The family visited him on trips to the East Coast; later the two would meet as respected colleagues.
In the fall of 1890 Morgan became one of about 100 women students enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. Since there were no schools of architecture in California, she became the only woman in the civil engineering program. The abuse she endured from the male students barely fazed her.
During her senior year Julia met the charismatic Bernard Maybeck, who believed that she would do well at his alma mater—the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. However, in 1896 when she applied for the entrance examination the school was not accepting women. Nearly a year after arriving in Paris, she reapplied, this time successfully. In October 1898 she took the examination, placed 13th out of 376 applicants, and became the first woman ever admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Back home the San Francisco Examiner ran a story headed "CALIFORNIA GIRL WINS HIGH HONOR". At the Ecole she distinguished herself, and in 1901 she received her graduate certificate from the best architectural school of the time.
In a long and brilliant career, she created hundreds of buildings that merged her clients' needs and wishes with her own sense of aesthetics. The Bell Tower at Mills College, the reconstruction of San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel following the 1906 earthquake, a number of YMCA buildings in California, Utah and Hawaii, including those at Asilomar Conference Center—all of these are among her significant commissions. But her signature creation remains Hearst Castle® in San Simeon. In 1919 publisher William Randolph Hearst made a simple request, "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 . . ." With those words and Julia Morgan at his side history was made.
- Julia Morgan, center, with clients William Randolph and Millicent Hearst on her left, and artist Orrin Peck and an unknown woman on Julia's right, courtesy of California Historical Society, FN-27946.
- William Randolph Hearst and Julia Morgan, courtesy of Marc Wanamaker, Bison Archives.
- State of California Architect's License #27 awarded to "Miss Julia Morgan", March 1,1904. Courtesy of California State Archives.
- Tiles designed by Julia Morgan.