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Bay Area Architect Julia Morgan’s Legacy Wasn’t Just Hearst Castle

Renowned architect Julia Morgan may be most famous for her work at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, but she also designed about 700 buildings throughout California and left a significant footprint on Bay Area architecture.

El Campanil at Mills College

Morgan was born in San Francisco in 1872 and went to University of California, Berkeley, majoring in civil engineering. She mentored under Bernard Maybeck and ended up going to his alma mater, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, an all-male school at the time. She became the first woman to graduate from the school in 1902. 

In 1904, she returned to San Francisco and became the first woman to earn an architect’s license in California. Over 100 years later in 2014, she was posthumously awarded the American Institute of Architects' highest honor, an AIA Gold Medal, the first for a female architect.

Early in her career, she was commissioned to build a bell tower, El Campanil, at Mills College. It became the first tower west of the Mississippi to use reinforced concrete, according to Legal Consultants architect and attorney Julia Donoho, who spoke during a recent CREW San Francisco event.

The bell tower helped catapult Morgan’s career forward.

“El Campanil was one of the most important structures in Julia Morgan’s career,” historian Karen McNeill said during a 2016 interview with KQED.

While reinforced concrete was used in industrial and factory buildings, Morgan was the first to use it aesthetically, according to McNeill.

Her work soon paid off.

“When the earthquake and fire hit, the bell tower endured without a crack,” McNeill said. “Mills College became a laboratory for engineers to see how this technology can be used.”

Morgan was later called upon to rebuild The Fairmont Hotel, which was significantly damaged during the quake. She pushed hard to get the workmen and materials needed and rebuilt the now iconic hotel within one year, according to Donoho.

The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco

Her work with reinforced concrete also led the city to reconsider the material. San Francisco’s building codes before the earthquake and fire that swept through the city did not allow for concrete other than in the foundation, according to Donoho. In under six months after the earthquake, the city changed the code.

“It was a very quick change to the code because of that one building still standing,” Donoho said during the CREW San Francisco event. “Cheers to Julia Morgan.”

After the earthquake recovery, Morgan went on to work with three generations of Hearsts, which included building Hearst Castle along the central coast.

Her initial work with the Hearst family began with Phoebe Hearst, who commissioned Morgan in 1913 to build a conference center, Asilomar, in Pacific Grove for the Young Women's Christian Association, according to Curbed. The architect designed 16 buildings on the 30-acre property, which is now one of the state’s most popular parks after Hearst Castle.

Much of her lesser-known work throughout the Bay Area is dozens of clubs and leisure facilities dedicated to women, including the YWCA.

During Morgan’s career, wealthy women were coming into their own and creating social welfare programs. These women inherited money from their industrial-capitalist husbands and used that money to create new buildings dedicated to women's institutions.

Over a 20-year period, Morgan designed facilities around the state as well as one in Honolulu. She also designed schools, churches, stores, hospitals, houses and apartments.

Check out some other standout buildings that she designed in the Bay Area:

Oakland YWCA

The Oakland YWCA building at 1515 Webster St. in Oakland

Built 1913 to 1914 in the style of an Italian Renaissance palazzo, the five-story Oakland YWCA at 1515 Webster St. was one of Morgan’s first YWCA buildings in the Bay Area. After financial difficulties, the Oakland YWCA was integrated in 2005 with the Berkeley YWCA, and the building’s bottom floors were sold in 2007. The organization had previously sold the top two floors to California College of the Arts to be used as college dorms. Envision Academy is the current tenant of the bottom three floors of the building.

Berkeley City Club

The Berkeley City Club at 2315 Durant St. in Berkeley

The Berkeley City Club was built in 1929 and Morgan used Moorish and Gothic elements throughout. Among the most distinct features of the club is the plunge room, an indoor pool area, made entirely of concrete. The pool, which is still used today, sits under Gothic archways and was designed with large windows to let in outdoor light. The Berkeley City Club also functions as a 35-room hotel. 

Hearst Building

The Hearst Building at 5 Third St. in San Francisco

The 13-story, 120K SF building at 5 Third St. in San Francisco was renovated by Julia Morgan in 1938. She remodeled the entryway, the lobby and parapet roof structure, according to Curbed San Francisco. She installed 20 cast-bronze medallions with animals above the front door as well as red, white and blue lighting around the medallions. In 2016, Hearst, the owners of the building, submitted plans to convert the building into a 130-room hotel. The building, which houses nonprofits and small companies, once housed the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Heritage

The Ladies Protection and Relief Society of San Francisco commissioned Morgan in 1924 to build a nursing care and senior living facility, which still exists today off Laguna Street in San Francisco. The reinforced-concrete and brick facade building was designed to withstand an earthquake since it sat upon a former landfill from the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, according to Curbed San Francisco. It survived the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake with little damage.