Julia Morgan (1872-1957) climbed scaffolding with some difficulty, and not because of the annoying layers of her outfit: as a young woman she had had an ear operation, with such malpractice that her face ended up partially paralyzed, and her body, with stability problems . But she had an ace up her sleeve. “Without anyone noticing, she hooked a finger in the suit of one of her trusted employees, whom she asked to go in front of her, to have a point of support and not fall flat on her face,” she confides to La Nación Revista la writer Victoria Kastner, author of Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect.
Unstoppable, he designed and built more than 700 buildings, including cabins, offices, schools, charity centers, churches, theaters, hospitals, women’s clubs, hotels… All this without mentioning a site that has become a mandatory stop for any tourist on a walk. through California: Hearst Castle, the well-known complex of the press tycoon William Randolph Hearst, a symbol of eccentricity and opulence.
“Before Julia, there were other women architects in the United States, even at the time of the civil war, such as Louise Béthune or Hazel Waterman,” admits Kastner, but he makes a big difference: “None of them worked on her scale.” She also argues that what makes Morgan different is that “after graduating as a civil engineer from the University of California, she traveled to Paris and became the first woman to be accepted into the rigorous architecture program at l’École des Beaux- Arts, the best in the world”.
Twice they denied him entry; they even lowered her grades to discourage her. “But she persevered, and once she was admitted, she completed her studies in just three years, instead of the six it used to take her to complete her degree.” Back in her homeland, there was another milestone for the girl (she had a difficult time studying in France, since she was a constant target of ‘hazing’ by her classmates): she was the first woman to receive a license to practice as an architect in the state of California, in 1904.
The impact was immediate and disastrous: as the ground opened up and buildings collapsed, fires began to multiply from broken gas pipes and downed power lines. When the fire was contained days later, 80 percent of the buildings had been destroyed; uninhabitable.
When covering the splendid inauguration of the hotel, a reporter wanted to verify if it was true that a girl had been in charge of the project. “Yes, a true architect named Julia, although she could well be called John”, confirmed the foreman, throwing her – in her style – ‘flowers’.
The writer clarifies, however, that “Julia did give talks and seminars on how civic buildings should be built. And in parallel, without the slightest divisiveness of her, she could officiate as a jury in children’s contests where, for example, flower pots were designed”. She was also an early advocate for women’s suffrage, although she was not involved in the suffrage movement or any other cause.
With a natural talent for mathematics and for the violin, the future architect had grown up in a Victorian mansion in California, in a wealthy family, the second of five children, with whom she got along wonderfully. Of course, in her meetings with her relatives, she used to stay in a corner leafing through art or architecture books.
Julia had to try to harmonize the complex at every step, and be behind every detail, including interior design and landscaping, moving native oaks up to 200 years old to make them look “more picturesque”. And the trees survived the move.
The complex, which opened to the public in 1958 as a museum, was intended as a love nest for the father of the tabloid press and his mistress, actress Marion Davies. Likewise, it was a meeting place for glittering figures of showbiz and politics, received with all the pomp: Cary Grant, Joan Crawford and Winston Churchill participated in –apparently– unforgettable parties.
In total they comprised 165 rooms, surrounded by 50 hectares of gardens, swimming pools and paths. There were dozens of bathrooms, fireplaces, lounges; also an aerodrome, the largest private zoo of its time, a billiard room and a cinema. And although the baroque of southern Spain was the main reference for this town with views of the Pacific, there were many knowledgeable people who began to call it cambalache, a delusional pastiche…
The historian also maintains that the imaginary reproduction offered by Orson Welles of Xanadú, the fictional mansion of The Citizen (Kane), does not match this property of more than 8,000 square meters.
Ironically, his descendants (or the state of California, to which the space was donated) settled the dispute: a few years ago the film was screened at the castle, in a very unique event, whose tickets were sold in record time. We will have to see if one day they repeat the formula with Mank, by David Fincher, about how Herman J. Mankiewicz would have written the script for this film.
Nor did he shy away from extravagant requests: “A married couple commissioned him to make… A house with no right angles in sight! And so he did. A cold guy told him that he hated getting out of bed to turn on the heat, so he invented a remote system for him to do it from the sheets. In short, what the client wanted, she created. Always paying attention to logic, functionality, symmetry”.
“Morgan was no more than five feet tall, and she was skinny. But one of her employees recounted that she had seen strong men tremble when she set limits on them and, without raising her voice, told them: ‘That’s not how it goes.’ She had a knack for command; she exercised what could be called soft power, ”shares Kastner, who has managed to reconstruct the life and work of the elusive Julia after years of research, thoroughly reading her correspondence, articles about her work and interviewing her relatives. .
A workaholic, she never delegated projects. She didn’t drink alcohol. She didn’t eat much either, and she slept even less. She was fond of Chinese calligraphy. And in the small studio that was built in Monterey, the walls were covered with large paintings depicting oriental goddesses. In her last years, still very ill, she did not let go of the pencil.
Posthumously recognized by architects
The American Institute of Architects agrees: in 2014 it posthumously awarded him the Gold Medal, its highest distinction, decades after his death. He did it with the support of contemporaries like Frank Gehry, Michael Graves and Denise Scott Brown. For the first time, a woman received that distinction.