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No. 872:
Julia Morgan

Today, meet the architect of Hearst Castle. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The first thing that caught my eye when I went to Berkeley as a student in 1956 was the architecture. Houses nestled into the rich plant life. Stone and wooden-shake buildings seemed to grow from the same ground as the succulents and eucalyptus trees.

That style was shaped in the late 1800s by a splinter group of Ruskin's Arts and Crafts movement. Berkeley architects joined to talk about fresh air, unpainted wood, and landscape gardening.

Julia Morgan grew up in Oakland during those years. She was bitten by that same architectural bug. Berkeley didn't teach architecture yet, so in 1894 she became the first woman graduate in civil engineering -- the closest thing to architecture.

Then, in 1896, Morgan heard that the Beaux-Arts School in Paris was accepting women. She went. It turned out to be a two-year struggle to get in. But, in 1904, she was the first woman to graduate from that leading architectural academy.

She was 30 years old when she sailed back to San Francisco. By now she was one of the best-trained young architects in the world, with a long string of academic awards.

Morgan set up shop in Oakland and began designing many of the buildings that so caught my fancy when I came to the East Bay. Then, in 1906, the great earthquake all but leveled San Francisco. The huge Fairmount Hotel was among the half-ruined, still-standing buildings. Morgan got the job of fixing it.

Morgan was a strong, delicate woman, only five feet tall, with porcelain-china features. She'd quietly done extraordinary work with no fanfare. Now the newspapers found her. A reporter met her climbing through the wreckage and took her for an interior designer. She had to explain that the trim was being done by a New York firm. Her job was rebuilding the broken structure.

She went on to design buildings for the Berkeley and Mills College campuses -- major churches and homes in the East Bay. Then, just after WW-I, William Randolph Hearst offered her her best-known commission. Hearst told her he wanted a "comfortable bungalow" for his hilltop retreat at San Simeon.

So began what Orson Wells called Xanadu in his Citizen Kane portrayal of Hearst. The bungalow grew and grew into the grandest mansion in America -- towers, gardens, swimming pools -- even a zoo. Over the next 22 years, Morgan made 500 trips to San Simeon, supervising the work and negotiating every fireplace with Hearst.

All the while she kept building YWCA's, shops, and houses. For 49 years she shaped a whole region's view of itself. Julia Morgan's name is obscure today. But if you ever lived in California, you were touched, somewhere, by her architectural genius.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Boutelle, S.H., Julia Morgan, Architect. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1988.

James, C., Julia Morgan. New York: Chelsea House Pubs., 1990.

Longstreth, R.W., Julia Morgan: Architect. Berkeley: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Assn., 1977.

Chun, G., Architectural Drawings by Julia Morgan: Beaux-Arts Assignments and Other Buildings. Oakland, CA: The Oakland Museum, January 1976.

For more on Julia Morgan, visit