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At Last: Julia Morgan receives AIA Gold Medal

by Lisa Harrington

The American Institute of Architects Gold Medal is considered to be the profession’s highest honor. The Gold Medal honors an individual whose significant body of work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture. In December 2013, the AIA Board of Directors voted to give the 2014 award to Julia Morgan.

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Julia Morgan’s Paris passport photo

Recognition from AIA for her architectural achievements would come 57 years after her death. Morgan’s grandniece received the award on her behalf at the AIA 2014 National Convention and Design Exposition in Chicago on June 28.

Morgan, who died in 1957, won a litany of firsts and established a new precedent for greatness in the field. A building technology expert who was professionally adopted by some of the most powerful post-Gilded age patrons imaginable, Morgan practiced for nearly 50 years and designed more than 700 buildings of almost every type, including houses, churches, hotels, commercial buildings, and museums. The first woman admitted to the prestigious architecture school at the Ecoles des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Morgan designed comfortably in a wide range of historic styles.

“Julia Morgan is unquestionably among the greatest American architects of all time and a true California gem,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in her recommendation letter. “Morgan’s legacy has only grown over the years. She was an architect of remarkable breadth, depth, and consistency of exceptional work, and she is widely known by the quality of her work by those who practice, teach, and appreciate architecture.”

Born in 1872, Julia Morgan grew up in Oakland. Exceptionally bright from a young age, she was one of the first women to study civil engineering at the University of California-Berkeley, where she caught the eye of AIA Gold Medalist Bernard Maybeck, who taught there. He gave Morgan what he would give the best and brightest of any gender: a recommendation to apply for the Ecoles des Beaux-Arts, the most prominent architecture school of its day. But there were two problems: She was a foreigner, and subject to unstated, but strict quotas, and a woman. No female had ever been admitted. She failed the first entrance exam; her second exam was discounted for no other reason than her gender. She was finally admitted after her third try. It is said that on her third try, she applied as J. Morgan rather than Julia. She completed the entire program in 1902. Back in Berkeley, Morgan went to work for architect John Galen Howard, designing buildings for her undergraduate alma mater. In 1904, she became the first woman licensed to practice architecture in California, and opened her own firm.

An early project was an open air Classical Greek theater; the first such structure in the nation. After the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, much of the city was leveled, but her Greek theater survived, providing her with a level of unprecedented credibility. In addition to this project solidifying her reputation, the project also brought her closer into the orbit of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, a university booster and mother to publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Word of Morgan’s skill with reinforced concrete spread across California. She began to take advantage of the material’s groundbreaking plasticity and flexibility in imaginative, new ways, savoring opportunities to clamber through scaffolding at buildings sites to inspect the work.

What stands out most is the vast array of architectural styles she employed: Tudor and Georgian houses, Romanesque Revival churches, and Spanish Colonial country estates with an Islamic tinge. Her late-period Beaux-Arts education gave her the ability to design in these historicist styles, gathering up motifs and methods from all of Western architectural history to select the approach most appropriate for each unique site and context. “She designed buildings to fit her clients, blending design strategy with structural articulation in a way that was expressive and contextual, leaving us a legacy of treasures that were as revered when she created them as they are cherished today,” wrote AIA Gold Medalist Michael Graves, FAIA, in a recommendation letter.

Some of Morgan’s most notable projects include:

St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, an excellent example of First Bay architecture. An intimately scaled church, its interior is entirely clad in redwood, including open cross-strut beams that create a sense of humble grace and wonderment.

Asilomar in Pacific Grove, a YWCA conference center (Morgan designed approximately 30 YWCAs) that is perhaps the largest Arts and Crafts campus complex anywhere, according to Sara Holmes Boutelle’s book Julia Morgan Architect. Its palette of rich natural materials and fluid mix of indoor and outdoor spaces suits its pleasant Northern California climate.

The Hearst Castle in San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst’s seaside retreat, 165 rooms across 250,000 acres, all dripping with detailing that’s opulent bordering on delirious. The style is generally Spanish Colonial, but the estate seems to compress Morgan’s skill at operating in different design languages: Gothic, Neoclassical, as well as Spanish Colonial, all into one commission.

Morgan joined the AIA in 1921 as only the seventh female member. She is the 70th AIA Gold Medalist and joins the ranks of such visionaries as Thomas Jefferson (1993), Frank Lloyd Wright (1949), Louis Sullivan (1944), Le Corbusier (1961), Louis I. Kahn (1971), I.M. Pei (1979), Santiago Calatrava (2005), Glenn Murcutt (2009), and Thom Mayne (2013). In recognition of her legacy to architecture, her name will be chiseled into the granite Wall of Honor in the lobby of the AIA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

A PARTIAL LIST OF “JULIA MORGANS” IN SAN FRANCISCO Private Residences Sources: Julia Morgan Papers, Cal Poly
American Institute of Architects
Landmarkscalifornia.org


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