Women in Construction: Julia Morgan

As part of our celebration of Women’s History Month, we want to highlight extraordinary Women in Construction, past and present. In this profile we spotlight Julia Morgan, the first licensed woman architect in California. Also be sure to check out the next episode in our Women in Construction podcast series. CEO Steve Harper interviews Julie Sands, Senior Project Manager for Lewisville ISD. Julie talks about challenges of managing rapid growth, best practices for ensuring that projects meet expectations, and the importance of maintaining control of project information. You won’t want to miss it!

Born the daughter of a California mining engineer, Julia Morgan was introduced to architecture through a cousin’s husband. But in the late 1800s, architecture was not a particularly inviting career path for a woman. Nevertheless, undoubtedly encouraged by strong female role models like her mother and maternal grandmother, Julia was undeterred. 

After graduating from Oakland High School in 1890, she enrolled at UC Berkeley. Since there was no architectural program, she had to major in engineering. She was often the only woman in her math, science, and engineering courses. She graduated with honors in 1894, the first woman to attain a B.S. degree in civil engineering from Berkeley.

Breaking Barriers

After graduating in 1894 and gaining a year of real-wold experience, Julia decided to apply to the world-renowned the architecture program at l’École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Under pressure from French women artists, the school had just agreed to accept female students.

It took Julia three tries to get in. On her first attempt, her test scores were too low to qualify among the 30 candidates accepted each year. She easily passed that threshold on her second try, but the examiners “arbitrarily lowered” her grade to allow a male student in instead. Finally, after a further year of study and preparation, she scored just outside the top 10 and was finally admitted to the architecture program.

Here she experienced yet another obstacle. The École des Beaux Arts prohibited students older than 30, meaning that Julia would have to complete the rigorous program in 3 years instead of the normal 5. True to form, she buckled down and in early 1902, as her birthday approached, she submitted her final project. She became the first woman to receive a certificate in architecture from the prestigious school.

A Standout Career

Back in the United States, Julia became the first woman to obtain an architecture license in California. One of her early clients was Mills College, just across San Francisco Bay. Its president, Susan Mills, wanted to further the career of a female architect. It also didn’t hurt that Julia charged considerably less for her services than her more experienced male colleagues.

Her first project was a 72-foot bell tower made of reinforced concrete. Completed in 1904, it survived the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake unscathed. Julia’s reputation soared. Her expertise in using earthquake-resistant reinforced concrete ensured that she became a much sought-after architect as San Francisco rebuilt itself following the quake. Her work restoring the famous Fairmont Hotel brought her a national reputation as “a superb engineer, an innovative designer and architect, and a dedicated professional,” in the words of her biographer Mark Wilson.

Thanks to the quality of her work, she became the preferred architect for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, designing dozens of projects for the Hearst family in the decades that followed. The most famous was the iconic Hearst Castle overlooking San Simeon Harbor. Julia even designed many of the tiles used in the construction herself. 

Building a Legacy

Before her death at age 85 in 1957, Julia designed hundreds of homes, churches, offices, and educational facilities, as well as numerous architectural contributions to the YWCA and Mills College. Many can still be seen today throughout California.

In 1929, UC Berkeley conferred on her an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. The proclamation called her a “distinguished alumna of the University of California, artist and engineer; designer of simple dwellings and of stately homes, of great buildings nobly planned to further the centralized activities of her fellow citizens; architect in whose works harmony and admirable proportions bring pleasure to the eye and peace to the mind.”

In 2008, Julia Morgan was posthumously inducted into the California Hall of Fame, located at The California Museum for History, Women and the Arts. In 2014, the American Institute of Architects awarded her its highest award, the AIA Gold Medal. She became the first female architect to receive this honor.

Lessons from the Field

For the most part, Julia Morgan let her work speak for itself. She disliked self-promotion and rarely gave interviews . . . and even more rarely talked about herself. But her life and career still offer some invaluable lessons to AEC professionals today.

  • Just persevere: Even becoming an architect required an enormous amount of willpower and self-confidence for Julia. Every project will encounter problems, every project manager will face challenges. Create a solid plan, assemble the right team, leverage the right tools . . . and just keep working. There’s no substitute for perseverance.
  • Keep an eye on the budget: When she moved to Paris, Julia was given a lump sum of money to cove her first year’s living expenses. But the City of Lights was more expensive than she anticipated, and she ran short of funds. Rather than ask her family for more, she learned to live on a tight budget. That lesson stayed with her for this rest of her life. She later adeptly managed project costs, helping ensure that clients’ projects were completed on time and within budget. For modern owners, keeping control of the project budget is equally important. 
  • Master new technologies: Julia’s willingness to explore the possibilities of using reinforced concrete was career-changing. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, her expertise gained her national recognition as owners sought protection against future quakes. Being able to identify and leverage innovative new technologies, whether it’s green building techniques or collaborative project management software, is still essential for success. 
  • Details matter: The Hearst Castle remains one of America’s most famous structures in part because of Julia Morgan’s emphasis on detail. A multitude of small mistakes can aggregate into big problems, so successful owners understand the importance of maintaining full visibility into every aspect of a project. 

Learn more about how Owner Insite’s industry-leading construction management software can help you build your legacy by minimizing risk and maximizing ROI.

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