Julia Morgan, best known now as the architect of William Randolph Hearst's palatial San Simeon home, was a woman of firsts. At a time when it was still unusual for women to go to college, she became the first woman to graduate from Paris' prestigious Ecole Des Beaux Arts, and the first woman to be licensed as an architect in California. By the time she retired in 1951 at the age of 79, this unassuming woman, who never talked to the press or sought publicity, had designed over 700 buildings and left a lasting architectural legacy.
Julia Morgan was born in San Francisco on January 20, 1872 to Charles Morgan, a mining engineer, and Eliza Parmalee Morgan, who came from a wealthy family in New York. During her childhood, the Morgan family took frequent trips east to visit Julia's Parmalee grandparents (who continued to support the family financially, despite Charles' failed business ventures). On one of these trips, Julia met her cousin Lucy's husband Pierre LeBrun, a successful architect, who inspired her to become an architect herself.
At that time, most girls, after graduating high school, would have a 'coming out' party, which signaled a young woman's formal introduction to society and the beginning of her search for a husband. But Julia had other ideas. She wanted to go to college. The University of California at Berkeley, which was close to her home in Oakland, was chartered in 1868 and began accepting female students two years later. With the support of her parents, Julia enrolled in Berkeley's College of Engineering, the closest thing to an architecture school on the west coast. By the time Julia attended, Berkeley had around 100 female students, although she was often the only girl in her engineering classes.
During her senior year, Julia met Bernard Maybeck, a well-known architect of the Arts and Crafts movement who had been hired to teach geometry at Berkeley. She attended a series of informal lectures about architecture that Maybeck gave in his home, and was strongly influenced by the Arts and Crafts philosophy that a building should conform to its site. While studying at Berkeley, Julia probably also met Phoebe Hearst, a wealthy philanthropist who took an especial interest in the university and female students in particular, hosting teas and musical events at her house near the campus.
After graduating, Julia worked with Maybeck in his studio. In 1896, Maybeck got word that his alma mater, the prestigious Ecole Des Beaux-Arts in Paris, might finally be ready to admit women. He encouraged Julia to go to Paris and try her luck.
The Ecole, as it turned out, did not allow women to sit for its entrance examination until the fall of 1897. On her first examination, Julia placed 42nd out of 376 applicants, which was good, but not good enough for admission — the school only took the top 30 entrants. Julia stayed in Paris, working at various architectural offices to hone her skills. She took the test two more times. On her last try, in October 1898, she was ranked 13th, making her the first woman to ever be admitted to the school.
Now Julia was in a race against the clock — the Ecole did not allow students older than 30 to accumulate points towards graduation. Less than a month before her 30th birthday, Julia won a competition to design a theater, which gave her the points she needed to become the Ecole Des Beaux Arts' first female graduate. The education she received there continued to influence her throughout her life — she worked equally well in classical styles as in the Arts and Crafts style of her California home.
Back at home in San Francisco, Julia worked for architect John Galen Howard on a few different buildings for the University of California, including the Greek theater. After that, she decided to set up a practice of her own — perhaps inspired by reports that Howard had told a colleague that he had "an excellent draftsman whom I have to pay almost nothing, as it is a woman."
During her long career, Julia designed churches, gymnasiums, hotels, community centers, and private homes, but she is best remembered for her work for William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate and son of her old friend Phoebe Hearst.