Sunday, July 14, 2024
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From modest bungalows to a sprawling mansion

Jennifer Reese

THE WASHINGTON POST – My memories of high school are bittersweet at best, but when I think about ninth-grade algebra and my first crush, I’m back in a lofty, sunlit room with tall, mullioned windows that look out on a wide courtyard and the creamy stucco and Spanish tile roofs of the classrooms on the other side.

Even my cringy-est high school experiences have a curious radiance to them that decades later I believe has everything to do with the beauty of the environment in which they unfolded. I didn’t know it at the time, but my high school in Northern California was one of some 700 buildings designed by the architect Julia Morgan in the first half of the 20th century.

Over a 50-year career, Morgan designed not just schools but also understated bungalows, downtown office buildings, the Fairmont hotel in San Francisco, libraries, clock towers, and, most famously, the 110,000-square-foot Hearst Castle.

That Morgan merits a biography is indisputable, and Victoria Kastner’s Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect bills itself as “the first volume to thoroughly examine Julia’s private life as well as her career”.

Kastner, who worked as the historian at Hearst Castle, has pored over family letters and business correspondence as well as Morgan’s drawings to bring us a book – part biography, part coffee table decor – that walks us briskly through the life and career of an extraordinary woman. If it never feels particularly “intimate”, that’s partly because Julia Morgan was a tough nut to crack, partly because Kastner seems reluctant to try.

Born in 1872, Morgan grew up in a prosperous family in Oakland, California. Some of the book’s liveliest sections consist of excerpts from the tart and belittling letters that Morgan’s mother wrote to her father.

In one, Eliza Morgan chastises her spouse for sending letters that were “so weak and mawkish I did not intend acknowledging them at all… I’d like to remind you, that you are supposed to be a man.” The next year, worried that she had diphtheria, she commands, “If I never see you again come get the children and marry some good kind of wife that will not be too young.” Was there something in her parents’ relationship that drove Morgan to choose career over matrimony?

Kastner doesn’t speculate even when the material almost begs for it.

Morgan graduated with a degree in civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, one of the first women to do so. It was the first of many firsts.

She moved to Paris in 1896 and became the first woman to finish the architecture program at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts.

In 1904, back in California, she became the state’s first licensed female architect. “The capacity of that little lady for work was just incredible,” recalled one of the employees at the architecture firm she founded.

Indeed, that little lady seems to have picked up her drafting pencil in the 1890s and not put it down again until her memory began to fail in the 1940s.

According to Kastner, she had no love life whatsoever. There was also scant interpersonal drama and almost none of the emotional turmoil you find in many biographies of pioneering women.

Morgan wore drab clothes, didn’t drink and would nibble on a soda cracker for dinner when immersed in a project. The “intimate” life of abstinence, emotionally controlled, discreet workaholic isn’t one that keeps you turning the pages late into the night.

The work itself is another story, and Kastner’s book is lavishly illustrated with Morgan’s delicate drawings and gorgeous finished creations, from a modest Mediterranean-style YWCA to the Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle, where she harmonised ancient Roman columns, 1930s marble nymphs and the 345,000-gallon swimming pool.

Morgan has been criticised for lacking a distinctive style, a charge that Kastner rightly dismisses.

Morgan, Kastner argues, managed to bring her commitment to functionality, balance and beauty into accord with the desires of her clients, whether the extravagant William Randolph Hearst or an ordinary home builder. And she was democratic in the care she took with her projects, treating the smallest project with the same attention to detail that she did the biggest. She believed that good architecture can ennoble us and should be available to all.

When designing a YWCA in San Francisco, Morgan included private dining rooms and kitchens for the residents so they could entertain their friends. As Kastner writes, “When she was asked, ‘These are minimum wage girls; why spoil them?’ Morgan replied, ‘That’s just the reason’.“

I thought about my high school when I read that. The lovely building was designed in 1917 for the education of clueless kids. Why spoil us? That was just the reason.

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