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Literature: Woman Warrior

by Paul Wilner

Victoria Kastner.

Julia Morgan’s quiet but determined legacy is detailed in a definitive new biography.

Victoria Kastner has touched on Julia Morgan’s career in three previous books — including Hearst Castle: The Biography of a Country House, with an introduction by George Plimpton — but she breaks new ground in her latest, Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect.

The handsome Chronicle Books volume, released in sync with Morgan’s sesquicentennial year, 1872 to 2022, features Alexander Vertikoff’s lush photography in addition to archival shots of the life and work of this often underestimated pioneer.

The first woman to study architecture at Paris’ prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and the first licensed female architect in California, Morgan is best known for William Randolph Hearst’s landmark estate in San Simeon. But she put her mark on countless other projects, from supervising the construction of UC Berkeley’s Greek Theatre to rebuilding the Fairmont Hotel after the great quake of 1906. After taking over the latter when the original architect, Stanford White, was fatally shot, she completed the work on time and under budget. She also restored the lobby of the Merchants Exchange Building, where she maintained the office of her architectural firm for half a century and which is now owned by the Gazette’s Clint Reilly, who named the Beaux-Arts building’s Julia Morgan Ballroom in her honor. Among the six buildings Morgan designed for Mills College in Oakland is the Mission-style El Campanil.

Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect (Chronicle Books)
Victoria Kastner mines a muse to share new details about the famous California architect.

Kastner, who was also prominently featured in the recent Citizen Hearst PBS series, sheds new light on Morgan’s much-speculated-about personal life. “I think it’s absolutely the case that she did not have romantic relationships,” says the author. “There are a couple of reasons. … One is with the male of the species. She was constantly being hazed [in Paris and elsewhere] — that’s not the kind of thing that necessarily makes you interested in the opposite sex. The other is her nature — she was a passionate person, but she sublimated all that into her art.”

Although Hearst was sometimes tardy in his payments, given his financial vagaries, their bond was indestructible. “She went in with her eyes open,” Kastner says, adding that Morgan also got along well with actress Marion Davies, Hearst’s longtime mistress. “It’s like there was a love affair between [Morgan and Hearst] — it was just of the mind,” Kastner says. Hearst sometimes invited Morgan to glittering dinner parties with celebrities and politicians at San Simeon. After one such event —attended by Gloria Swanson, novelist Gertrude Atherton and Billie Burke (Mrs. Flo Ziegfeld) — the journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns observed that Morgan looked like “a small neat bantam hen among birds of paradise.” But quickly added, “Except that she always sat on Mr. Hearst’s right.”

Morgan steered her own course, lending support to a well-appointed San Francisco YWCA. “When she was asked, ‘These are minimum-wage girls, why spoil them,’ she replied, ‘That’s just the reason,’” Kastner writes.

After the earthquake, she also rebuilt a Sacramento Street shelter for Chinese women forced into prostitution and a Potrero Hill facility serving Eastern European refugees — a far cry from the opulence of San Simeon. But no apologies are needed for her partnership with Hearst, says Kastner, who helped Morgan’s work receive the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 2014, with further backing from contemporaries like Frank Gehry, Michael Graves and Denise Scott Brown.

“There was an entrenched feeling, a kind of antipathy to the castle,” Kastner notes. “People saw it as something aberrant. But Hearst gave her a chance to channel a whole side of her designing self, which she would never have been able to do otherwise. They were greater together than either of them was apart.”

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