San Luis Obispo

Julia Morgan: The Woman Behind the Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle.

When Hoyt Fields first visited Hearst Castle, the lavish San Simeon estate of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the experience left him in awe. "I was overwhelmed," the Hearst Castle museum director said. "I enjoy imparting what we have there to our first-time visitors, just walking around with them and seeing the amazement in their faces."

Considered one of the jewels of the California State Parks system, Hearst Castle has attracted thousands of visitors to since opening to the public in 1958. Although most have probably heard of Hearst and his publishing empire, famously fictionalized in Orson Welles's film "Citizen Kane," the architect who designed his Central Coast mansion remains largely anonymous.

That architect is Julia Morgan, California's first licensed female architect. Over the course of her 47-year career, Morgan designed more than 700 buildings in California alone, including several YWCA buildings, the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, and the former St. John's Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, now the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts.

San Luis Obispo County is home to two Morgan buildings: Hearst Castle and the Monday Club in San Luis Obispo.

"The thing that makes her unique as a woman architect is that she was so diverse," Hearst Castle historian Victoria Kastner said of Morgan, who broke up the boys club of California architecture. "She didn't just remodel kitchens or build women's clubs, but she also built radio towers and zoos and hotels and hospitals and hundreds of private residences." "She had an output that is unmatched by most architects," Kastner said.

Born in San Francisco in 1872, Morgan studied civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley before attending the L'École des Beaux-Arts in Paris on the urging of her mentor, Bay Area architect Bernard Maybeck. She became the first woman to receive Beaux-Arts certification in architecture in 1902.

Morgan opened her own office in San Francisco in 1904. Her earliest commissions included a bell tower at Mills College in Oakland that withstood the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, landing her the commission to rebuild the severely damaged Fairmont Hotel.

William Randolph Hearst | Courtesy of Hearst Castle®/California State Parks.

California philanthropist Phoebe Apperson Hearst provided one of Morgan'sfirst residential projects, hiring her to remodel and complete her Pleasanton mansion, La Hacienda del Pozo de Verona. Her son, William Randolph Hearst, commissioned the architect to build the Mission-style Examiner Building in Los Angeles in 1915.

When Hearst inherited the family's 250,000-acre ranch in 1919 following his mother's death, he wrote Morgan complaining of the rustic conditions at "Camp Hill:" "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."

What Hearst originally had in mind was a "Jappo-Swiss" bungalow, Kastner said, then popular in Southern California. But as he and Morgan started work on "La Cuesta Encantada," or, the Enchanted Hill, as the 127-acre estate came to be called, their vision evolved to encompass something far more grandiose.

Hearst Castle facade | Courtesy of Hearst Castle®/California State Parks.

According to Kastner, Hearst and Morgan took inspiration from two sources: the Spanish Colonial Revival style made popular by the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, and their collective travels overseas.

"They both had this desire to take his favorite place of California and give it the architectural grandeur of Europe," said Kastner, who's published two books with photographer Victoria Garagliano: Hearst Castle: The Biography of a Country House and "Hearst's San Simeon: The Gardens and the Land." She's currently working on a third about Morgan's Hearst Ranch work.

Morgan modeled the Mediterranean main house, the Casa Grande, whose gleaming facade features ornate twin towers, carved teak and colorful tile, after a Spanish cathedral. More Old World influences are evident inside, from the third-century Roman mosaic at the entrance of the Assembly Room to the 15th-century Spanish ceiling hanging above the Billiard Room.

The Refectory resembles a medieval dining hall complete with a massive stone fireplace, tapestries and choir stalls, while the indoor Roman Pool, with its glimmering blue-and-gold tile and marble statues, looks like an ancient Roman bath.

In addition to the iconic Neptune Pool, which boasts graceful marble colonnades and statues by French sculptor Charles Cassou, Hearst Castle has three guest cottages, two libraries, a zoo, a movie theater and a private airfield - making it the perfect spot for Hearst and his mistress, comedienne Marion Davies, to entertain Hollywood celebrities including Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin.

"It's really a remarkable collaboration like you seldom find between any architect and client," the Kastner said, noting that Morgan worked on several Hearst properties including Wyntoon in Siskiyou County, the Rancho Milipitas Hacienda in Monterey County, and homes in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. "Hearst was always enlarging his vision for this place," Kastner said, forcing Morgan to constantly revise her plans to accommodate him. "She never lost that sense of scale and proportion."

Julia Morgan and William Randolph Hearst | Courtesy of Hearst Castle®/California State Parks.

According to Sara Holmes Boutelle's biography "Julia Morgan, Architect," Morgan first visited San Simeon in August 1919, returning almost every weekend between 1920 and 1938. Work ended on Hearst Castle in 1947. Morgan would leave her San Francisco office at the end of the work week and take the train 200 miles north to San Luis Obispo.

Taxi driver Steve Zegar would then drive her nearly 45 miles to the hillside construction site. It was Zegar who facilitated the meeting between Morgan and Monday Club president Grace Barneberg, who approached her to design a clubhouse.

Formed by members of two separate women's organizations in November 1924, the Monday Club began its first complete club year in September 1925 and started the search of a permanent home a few years later. In 1929, the organization purchased a parcel for $3,900. After inspecting the site, Morgan agreed to design the clubhouse free of charge in exchange for room and board during her trips to the Central Coast.

"We were really fortunate," former Monday Club president Patti Taylor said. "We got so many beautiful things because of [Hearst Castle] being built here. She was getting all that exposure to that art, that beauty, that grandiosity. That's what she brought to the Monday Club."

Dedicated in 1934, Morgan's Monday Club combines her Mediterranean aesthetic with elements of the Arts and Crafts movement. San Francisco painter Doris Day's murals recall the loquat trees Morgan spotted on her evening walks while a delicate piece of English china inspired the painted pattern in the foyer. "You can walk in and tell instantly it's a Julia Morgan," Taylor said, praising the airy auditorium's exposed ceiling trusses and parquet floor.

Taylor and fellow Monday Club member Suzette Lees featured the clubhouse in their book "75 SLO City Sites: An informative self-guided architectural tour in historic San Luis Obispo." "It's a rare treasure," Lees said.

Morgan also designed the Arts and Crafts-style headquarters of the Minerva Club in Santa Maria, about 33 miles to the south. Completed in October 1928, the building features custom-made tiles, terra cotta urns and plenty of natural wood.

According to Kastner, Morgan "brought the same philosophy to every project and every client," no matter how humble. Her hallmarks - an eye for detail, an appreciation for craftsmanship, a sense of proportion - can be seen in each structure, the author added.

"Morgan thought it was very important that she had grown up to produce architecture in the region (in which) she had been born and raised," Kastner said. Morgan died in 1957, but her buildings, her ideas manifest as structures, remain.

Hearst Castle column blueprint | Courtesy of Hearst Castle®/California State Parks.

Hearst Castle blueprint | Courtesy of Hearst Castle®/California State Parks.

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Top Image: Hearst Castle. Photo courtesy of Hearst Castle®/California State Parks.

About the Author

Sarah Linn covers film, television and the performing arts as an entertainment writer for The Tribune newspaper of San Luis Obispo, Calif. She shares her insights on Facebook, Twitter and via her blog, "She Likes to Watch."
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"I would like you to build a little something." Funny. That "little something" provided Morgan with steady work for a couple of decades. We should all enjoy such job security!

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