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Ella Castelhun - A Lesser Known Woman Architect

by Inge S. Horton

In 1901, the State of California adopted a law that required all practicing architects to be licensed, either demonstrating their experience in the field of architecture or passing an exam and fulfilling requirements in education and experience. Julia Morgan was the first woman to appear on the roster of licensed architects, receiving license number B344 in 1904. The second woman licensed to practice architecture in California was Ella Castelhun, who received license B358 in 1905. In contrast to Morgan, she remains little known. Unfortunately, her file is not available at the State of California Architects Board. The last record of her architectural career is her inclusion in the 1920 register of licensed architects who had paid their annual dues.

Old San Francisco city directories from 1890 to 1939 list Ella Castelhun not as an architect, but as a teacher in public schools. This fact raises more questions than it answers. Why would a schoolteacher maintain a license that allowed her to practice architecture in California? Did she design houses during the summer when she had vacations? She must have been serious about being an architect to pay the annual fee, a considerable amount of money for a teacher.

I continued my search on the Internet, where ancestry.com listed the date of her birth in 1868, her death in 1961, and the names of her parents. The site also provided a link to the submitter of the information, her great-grandnephew, who was able to tell me more about “Aunt Ella.” Her artistic talent can be traced back to her father, a poet and surgeon, and her grandfather on her mother’s side, a famous landscape artist and illustrator of biology and anatomy. According to the great-grandnephew, she attended the University of California and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree of Philosophy (PhB) in Architecture in 1898. She died in 1961 after teaching for about fifty years and was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. To my disappointment, he did not know anything about her architectural work, nor did her newspaper obituary reveal any new information about her career.

My research at the University Archives confirmed that she enrolled in 1894, originally as a special student, but her bachelor’s degree in 1898 was from the College of Social Sciences and not in architecture. How was it possible that a woman who had studied to become a teacher was able to fulfill the requirements for an architectural license? Since her files were lost at the Licensing Board in Sacramento, we have no record of her experience in architecture, a prerequisite for being licensed. Her transcripts from the University reveal that, from the very beginning of her studies, she had taken architecture and drawing classes along with English, German, French, Mathematics and Pedagogy. After her graduation in December of 1898 she continued through 1904-05 as a graduate student at the College of Social Sciences and took classes related to the practice of architecture, such as civil engineering and architectural drawing. However, she did not receive a graduate degree. She might have gained practical experience by working as a draftswoman for architect Bernard Maybeck or John Galen Howard. Both were her teachers at Cal.

So far, aided by a friend who researches old building contracts, I have discovered just two houses designed by Ella Castelhun, both still standing in San Francisco. The first house was built in 1905 at what was then 48-50 Merritt Street and is now 3054-56 Market Street. The owner was Mrs. Winifred McKeown, a widow. The second house, pictured here, was built in 1907 at 265-7 Lexington Street for Mrs. Mathilda Olander, also a widow. These two houses prove that Ella Castelhun was an able architect capable of entering a male-dominated profession. Perhaps she designed more buildings, remodeled houses, or worked as an employee in architectural offices. In general, the contributions of architects were not always known and difficult to trace if they worked in architectural firms. If published at all, the work was known as the creation of the principal of the firm but the collaborating architects were rarely mentioned.

Why is Ella Castelhun worth being mentioned and discussed? Not many people know that women have been practicing architecture in California since the turn of the last century. Documenting their work and lives will enrich our knowledge about professional women in the early part of the 20th century. It will expand the scope of the history of architecture. During the last twenty-five years, Julia Morgan became well known as the architect of Hearst Castle, Asilomar and several YWCA buildings, but she was not the only woman attempting to break into the field. Ella Castelhun showed a tremendous determination in pursuing her goal of becoming an architect. While working as a teacher she studied at the University of California in Berkeley, commuting by streetcar and ferry from her residence in the Mission (Valencia and 22nd Street) to Berkeley. Lacking a wealthy or socially-connected family, Ella Castelhun was forced to earn her living as a teacher and could only dedicate her spare time to architecture.



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Guest contributor Inge Horton’s lifelong passion for architectural history started in her childhood when she and her family visited many of the marvelous historical monuments in Germany and continued with her study of architecture. In 1988, she brought an exhibition on early European Women Architects to San Francisco. While hanging the exhibition panels, a friend of hers remarked that European women are lucky to have so many role models, while in California we only have Julia Morgan. Knowing from history that "nothing exists in isolation," Inge started her intensive research on contemporaries of Julia Morgan and discovered a rich heritage of local women architects. She is now writing a book on pioneer women architects in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can contact Inge at ingehor@pacbell.net.

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Ella Castelhun

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A recent view of the Olander House at 265-67 Lexington Street designed by Ella Castelhun and built by A. W. Burnett in 1907. Photo courtesy of Inge S. Horton.

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