Julia Morgan died an unknown architect in 1957. And although her professional work included more than 500 diverse projects—mostly in California—Morgan did not welcome accolades or publications focusing on her or her work.
More than 30 years after her death, the first thorough review of her architectural designs was published in 1988: Julia Morgan Architect by Sara Holmes Boutelle. Mark Wilson published his history of Morgan in 2007. And in 2000, author Victoria Kastner published the first of four books—three on the Hearst Castle that included Julia Morgan’s role in the development of the Enchanted Hill in San Simeon, and most recently, in the fall of 2022, her extraordinary biography focusing on Morgan herself.
In that same year, Gordon L. Fuglie compiled Julia Morgan: The Road to San Simeon, Visionary Architect of the California Renaissance (Rizzoli Electa, 2022). Understanding Morgan’s reluctance to be the subject of publications, I wondered what she would think not only about the title of this latest book, but also about its content.
Fuglie’s work attempts to examine the historical design context in which Morgan worked, focusing on the American Renaissance. This period is often described as the late 19th and first decades of the 20th centuries, when architecture referred back to the traditional character of ancient Greek and Roman works. Many institutional and governmental buildings were designed and constructed to reflect that period. The United States Supreme Court, designed by the architect Cass Gilbert in the early 1930s, is often cited as an outstanding example of the period.
In the preface of the book, Fuglie explains that his intention is to give a greater understanding of “Julia Morgan’s role in designing Hearst Castle while examining its meaning for its patron and his era.” If you are unfamiliar with the patron, it is William Randolph Hearst, the nation’s first media mogul, whose vast art and antique collection is showcased at the Castle’s San Simeon hilltop. Fuglie refers to Hearst as “her collaborator on a number of projects.” And he says that “Hearst Castle easily compares to its near contemporary cousins—the art-filled Gilded Age mansions of the Fricks, Astors, Bostwicks, and Vanderbilts.”
Julia Morgan likely would have questioned his statements.
The book is organized into seven chapters that are authored by historians and Fuglie, with chapter subjects he believes gives clarity to Morgan’s own academic and professional experience and her work, and to the national movement that led to the classical architecture of the time.
The Introduction, by Fuglie, discusses at length the California Renaissance and the overriding influence of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the Parisian design school where many 19th and 20th century architects studied and whose curriculum concentrated on the patterns of Greek and Roman architecture applied to contemporary functions. The chapter discusses the City Hall in Atascadero, California—the Central Coast city where Fuglie lives and where he first became aware of the classical movement in architecture.
He correctly gives notice to the international and national fairs that demonstrated the American Beaux Arts interpretations. A great number of California buildings designed in the classical manner exist. Among them are the Los Angeles Hall of Justice, the California State Capital building, and the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. The latter, by Bernard Maybeck—a teacher, mentor and longtime friend of Julia Morgan—is presented in Fuglie’s chapter.
In discussing the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, Fuglie notes that the California State Building at that fair is designed in a mission revival style, but stretches its connection to the Beaux Arts by listing its “symmetry, integrated design and spatial grandeur” characteristics. That fair and others were admired by William Randolph Hearst, and his mother Phoebe Apperson Hearst, who knew the architect Julia Morgan through her association with the University of California at Berkeley.
Morgan’s first work with the Hearst family was for Phoebe Apperson Hearst’s home in Pleasanton, California, and likely her association with his mother led Hearst to later hire Morgan for his own projects. That home, in a mix of pueblo and California mission styles, is early evidence of Morgan’s design skills in using a wide variety of styles, often completing projects in the style preferred by the client.
The California State Building incidentally was later used as a model, and almost an exact copy, for Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner newspaper building, and it had little of the classical movement character, as did most of the projects that Morgan completed for Hearst.
The book’s first chapter discusses the curriculum and the social context of the Ecole des Beaux Arts . . . It is a well-researched explanation of the school program, its admission procedures, and its culture. “
The book’s first chapter discusses the curriculum and the social context of the Ecole des Beaux Arts that so influenced the architects who were proponents of the classical movement. It is a well-researched explanation of the school program, its admission procedures, and its culture. The author, architectural historian Jeffery Tillman, describes Morgan’s experiences as the first woman to study in the male-dominated academy and the difficulties that she endured there, as well as the exceptional work that allowed her to be the first woman to receive a certificate of study from that institution.
Chapter 2, by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo professor Karen McNeill, also is an excellent documentation of Morgan’s experience at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. It gives an even more thorough discussion of her difficult entry, and the challenges she faced as the first woman to study architecture at the Ecole. The essay documents Morgan’s ability to mix styles, and her growing comfort with designing in a variety of styles. And it includes Morgan’s own admission that she did not “subscribe completely to the Beaux Arts way of design.”
An interesting item from McNeill’s research is that at one point in her studies, Morgan was singled out by the head of the school. He directed the school board to promote her—otherwise the Ecole might look “foolish” in having admitted a woman, and then permitted her to fail. Despite the pressure to succeed (her unique position was well published), there may in fact have been an advantage to being the first woman to enter the architectural program there. This chapter also includes some beautiful illustrations of the designs that Morgan completed as a student.
Fuglie might have edited both of these chapters to eliminate some redundancy, and he could have included an essay documenting Morgan’s years of study with the architect Maybeck between her graduation from Cal Berkely and her entry into the Ecole—when she was first involved with the Bay Area Arts and Crafts movement, which became one of Morgan’s preferred design styles.
Chapter 3 focuses on one of Morgan’s works, the YWCA in Oakland, California, that exemplifies the Italian Renaissance character of the project. Authored by Johanna Kahn, this essay also includes a clearer and tighter summary of the origins of the Renaissance movement in America than in the earlier chapter by Fuglie. It also gives another example of Morgan’s comfort with taking design elements from existing buildings and using them in her own work.
The Oakland building relates directly to an earlier YWCA structure Morgan had seen in St. Louis. Kahn calls this work “a palazzo for (the) Oakland YWCA,” comparing the building to 15th century Medici palazzo—a comparison that, in viewing both exteriors, seems less than obvious, although the interior courtyard is clearly, as Kahn notes, taken from a 16th century Italian palace and the interior of the main academic building at the Ecole.
Kahn’s essay ends with a comment that “Morgan repeatedly looked to the Italian Renaissance as a source of inspiration, not only for institutional buildings and a hilltop mansion in San Simeon…” To be exact, this was one of many styles that Morgan used, and perhaps despite the size of Hearst Castle, was one of the more rarely used inspirations.
Chapter 4 by Elizabeth McMilliam is an analysis of Morgan’s Los Angeles Examiner building, a Beaux-Arts vision of Spanish Colonial architecture. It includes a history of Morgan’s association with Phoebe Apperson Hearst and later with her son William Randolph, and the first Hearst commission for Mrs. Hearst’s home in Pleasanton. It includes a detailed description of the newspaper building, recognizing its design basis in the earlier 1883 California Building. McMilliam notes that the building is “notably similar” to the earlier structure, but she refrains from stating the obvious: it is almost an exact copy on the exterior. It is not clear to this writer what exactly the similarities are between Spanish Mission architecture and the classical patterns of the Beaux Arts.
This chapter also includes a precise description of the Spanish Colonial style that became one of the preferred styles for the southwestern United States. It also concludes with a statement from William Randolph Hearst that assigns the initial idea of the Spanish Renaissance character for the hill at San Simeon to Hearst—and not to Julia Morgan. His idea, not hers.
In Chapter 5, Fuglie explains that Hearst’s admiration of both the Spanish Colonial and Spanish Renaissance led Hearst and Morgan to mix and create a “composite” of both to house his vast collection of European art and antiques. Fuglie continues to make a forced connection between the Beaux Arts and the Colonial Revival by emphasizing architectural qualities common to both, and writing that “Morgan’s coursework at the Ecole . . . provided an excellent grounding for designing Hearst’s Spanish Renaissance recreation.”
This writer is unsure of what the Ecole faculty’s response to the Hearst Castle might have been, but I doubt that it would have achieved any points for her promotion in the Ecole’s program. Fuglie fails to mention that the site plan for Hearst’s mother’s estate was organized with a large main house surrounded by smaller buildings, similar to the design of the Hearst hilltop. Morgan often organized multiple buildings with a center circle or oval around which individual structures are organized.
Lastly, and simply, Hearst is building a hilltop village on a California Central Coast site that naturally calls to mind the Mediterranean. Fuglie notes that the “existing ensemble is remarkable for combining diversity and coherence.” He is referring to Casa Grande, the Castle’s Big House, which is composed of a central completed section with additions of both south and north wings. The additional wings are awkward and dissimilar to each other and to the original structure.
Fuglie’s writing reflects his knowledge of the details from his visits to the hilltop, but the descriptions are so thorough that the reader is lost, unless having experienced San Simeon personally.”
Granted, much of the hilltop remains unfinished, but it is difficult to imagine how these structures could ever have been completed into a pleasing whole. Morgan often referred to Hearst as the architect of the San Simeon hilltop, and stated that she only brought technical skill to the project. In these comments she might have been distancing herself from the project. A close associate and friend of Morgan’s, Walter Steilberg, is quoted as saying that the three cottages housing guests and Hearst’s family were largely Morgan’s work, but that the main building, Casa Grande, was facadism and an architectural composite of Hearst’s design.
Fuglie fails to mention both Hearst’s and Morgan’s many trips to Mexico, where an architectural style known as Plasteresque is common. Casa Grande is an excellent example of this design style, in which flat walls are finished with shallow decorations applied to the wall to give it greater depth and more architectural character. This chapter continues, in excruciating detail and length, with descriptions of the exterior and interior of the three cottages, of the gardens and walkways between them, and then a similarly lengthy recall of Casa Grande. Fuglie’s writing reflects his knowledge of the details from his visits to the hilltop, but the descriptions are so thorough that the reader is lost, unless having experienced San Simeon personally.
Fuglie describes Casa Grande’s first floor plan as a “Lego-Block exercise.” The first floor is actually the easiest to comprehend, with a central three rooms that are joined by two contiguous rooms on the north side and a kitchen/pantry and staff rooms on the other. He makes several comparisons that are difficult to accept, such as comparing Casa Grande with one of Morgan’s stunning projects, the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, California. The Chapel has a simple Spanish Mission exterior and a magnificent Gothic interior filled with tracery, sculptural trim and colored glass.
Fuglie’s writing includes descriptions of Hearst guest movements through the hilltop, including guest entry into the main house where “they may have stolen a guilty glance at the titillating neoclassical sculptures in the vestibule.” Really? Why look at a marble statue when you can move into the next room and see real starlets from the golden age of film?
Fuglie describes the main façade of Casa Grande as a “tribute to Morgan’s design acumen and her patron’s focus on details—seeing in the parts the outcome of the whole—that the western parts of Casa Grande coalesce.” He might as well be looking at another building with this comment.
Fuglie goes on to describe the Neptune pool and the Roman pool in detail, but omits the obvious explanation of the presence of a Roman temple in a context of a Spanish Colonial setting as a structure that might be found in the outskirts of a Spanish or Italian hilltop village. He also neglects to explain the character of the indoor pool at the hilltop being based on a fifth century Italian mausoleum in Ravenna, Italy that Hearst knew of and directed Morgan to make similar.
Fuglie ends the chapter with references of the hilltop structures to the ideas of the post-modernist architect Robert Venturi, and questions whether Hearst and Morgan would have “mused” that the visitors to San Simeon connect to the architectural character to “find ourselves in the panorama of history, myth, religion, art, and nature so that we may interrogate the past against the prospects of our presence or vice versa?” Again, really? Visitors are so overwhelmed with the scale, the character, and the location to do more than look and listen.
There are, certainly, beautiful photographs throughout Chapters 5 and 6.
Chapter 6, The Ceramic Tiles of Hearst Castle, is a wonderful essay on the history of the company that fabricated the beautiful tiles Morgan designed for the pavement and building decorations throughout the hilltop—especially for the cottages, which showed less influence by Hearst than on Casa Grande.
Kastner skirts the difficulty and Morgan’s skill in working with a demanding client, who in Morgan’s own words was the architect of San Simeon.”
Chapter 7 is by Hearst Castle and Julia Morgan expert Victoria Kastner. Just four pages of text, it explains Morgan’s and architects’ reliance on a library of books for reference in their work. Kastner discusses the sources of her library collection, the sources of Hearst’s art and antique collection, and Morgan’s skill in working with her client’s suggestions and his possessions in the formulation of Hearst Castle.
“Morgan was required to act as artist, scholar, scene designer, and decorator in her synthesis of architectural elements . . . Working within the restrictions imposed by the preexisting elements created an artistic challenge.” Kastner skirts the difficulty and Morgan’s skill in working with a demanding client, who in Morgan’s own words was the architect of San Simeon.
Kastner’s recent biography, Julia Morgan, An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect, gives a fuller story of Morgan’s person and history, the variety of architectural styles she employed, and the projects that were more to her character than the composite that is Hearst Castle.
Fuglie focuses on the Beaux Arts and the Renaissance of Italian and Spanish architecture as primary influences in Morgan’s work at the Hearst Castle. He minimizes the overwhelming direction by Hearst to Morgan in her making San Simeon.”
In Julia Morgan: The Road to San Simon, Visionary Architect of the California Renaissance, Fuglie focuses on the Beaux Arts and the Renaissance of Italian and Spanish architecture as primary influences in Morgan’s work at the Hearst Castle. He minimizes the overwhelming direction by Hearst to Morgan in her making San Simeon. Hearst’s creation of a Mediterranean village on the California coast as a fantasy retreat for his family and guests, showcasing his vast collection of art and antiques, was a design challenge well met by Morgan. Fuglie makes no mention of the influence of the late 19th and early 20th century American architect Stanford White, whose work Hearst so admired and whose architectural style of mixing antiques with new construction was the basis of the design of the hilltop.
Julia Morgan, The Road to San Simeon could make a great coffee table addition, with beautiful photographs and engaging chapters that explain the Ecole des Beaux Arts academic program and the tile fabrication company whose products so enhance the hilltop.
But if you are interested in learning about Julia Morgan, buy Kastner’s biography.
Keep in mind that the creation at San Simeon is but one of Morgan’s works—and although it is her largest, perhaps it is not what she would have considered most representative of her designs. For that, visit Asilomar, the YWCA headquarters in Pacific Grove, where you will see Morgan’s Bay Area Arts and Crafts style. Or visit Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland to see her interpretation of Gothic tracery. Or simply drive along the main road in San Simeon to view the extraordinarily beautiful Spanish Mission styles of the Hearst Ranch staff homes.
Then, you may understand the very different influences that led to Julia Morgan’s answer to William Randolph Hearst on the Enchanted Hill. Then, you might re-title Fuglie’s compilation, more appropriately, Julia Morgan, Her Detour to San Simeon.