Two new books by Central Coast authors shed light on the legacy of Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan
San Luis Obispo County’s iconic Hearst Castle in San Simeon reopened in May after a year-long closure due to COVID-19 and a major overhaul of the road leading to the property. Tour guides there now focus on the legacy of castle architect Julia Morgan, whose career and work at Hearst Castle were seminal for women architects during this period.
Two local historians, Gordon Fuglie and Victoria Kastner, have launched new books portraying Julia Morgan’s life and work in hopes of shedding light on a legacy they say is ripening right now.
The road to San Simeon
“I would categorize it as Julia Morgan’s world,” said Gordon Fuglie, author of Julia Morgan: The Road to San Simeon, Visionary Architect of the California Renaissance.
“It’s not just about her, but also the architectural period she lived in: the cultural currents and currents that influence her and her colleagues and why this group of architects, all educated at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris were doing architecture that they thought would define California at this pivotal moment as California entered modernity,” Fuglie said.
That California setting, Fuglie said, is one of the defining characteristics of Morgan’s work. Although she was raised in Paris, she was from California.
“At the time, Paris and San Francisco were worlds apart. That meant that all of these architects, while they wanted to use a classic style, also had to adapt to the California environment, the milieu,” he said.
“In the 1890s through the 1920s there was a lot of thought about what is American architecture. A lot of thinkers said we should take the legacy of Europe and make it our own in California, which was far from New York, Chicago, Boston, etc.,” Fuglie said. “That would be a Mediterranean style and also a nod to the Mission style, and that creates an eclecticism among architects.”
Fuglie said this broader focus on the California Renaissance through the lens of Julia Morgan was an extension of the book’s original intent.
“When I started this project in 2017, the book was conceived as an exhibition catalog for an exhibition of Julian Morgan’s architectural drawings, which, believe it or not, have never been displayed in an art museum,” Fuglie said. “And through the changes and opportunities of the museum world and COVID, the book has changed and evolved.”
Fuglie’s book is a collection of his own work and Contributions by other authors, including Kastner. He said it aims to renew interest and appreciation for Morgan’s work not only on Hearst Castle but also on her role in shaping California’s architectural renaissance.
“I hope that as our two books are critically reviewed and enjoyed by people interested in Julian Morgan and California architecture, they will also reevaluate their appreciation of this time. As Victoria and I both mentioned, it was so belittled and looked down on,” Fuglie said.
Fuglie said he finds it unique that he and Kastner, two historians in the relatively small county of San Luis Obispo, are doing such an overlapping and collaborative work. He sees their work as the second generation of academic research on Morgan and California Renaissance architecture, and he hopes more Central Coast historians and writers will continue to do so.
“I look forward to what the third generation will bring, because there is so much more to consider, interpret and share,” said Fuglie.
Fuglie also noted that his and Kastner’s work is part of a growing trend to re-examine the contributions of women in architecture, including that of Julia Morgan, who he said is finally beginning to be given her due.
“I’m happy to say that as the century begins, there is a growing momentum to recognize women in the visual arts and architecture and give them more equality in the art historical record. So that’s Victoria’s main contribution [Kastner] and I think what it has revealed is this: a larger panorama of art and architectural history than the previously constrained one,” he said.
Fuglie said one reason Morgan’s work has remained relatively unadmired is the modernist era that dominated the art world in the years after her career ended.
“It was that unfortunate interregnum between what came before and the triumph of modernism, but if you look closely and carefully at the ideals and ideas that influenced this architecture – not just Morgan’s, but their peers as well – it is a way of seeing how history and the greatness we see in it can still speak to us today. We overlook them at our own risk.”
An intimate biography of a pioneering architect
Victoria Kastner is the former official historian of Hearst Castle, who wrote what she calls the “definitive trilogy” of works on the famous estate.
Her new book, Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect, details Morgan’s private life through never-before-published letters.
“She exchanged 2,462 letters with William Randolph Hearst, the most telling of which was the last one that has never been printed before. So [the book] really reveals her private thoughts and personal life,” Kastner said.
Those documents, Kastner said, add depth to the historical record of one of the country’s most influential architects.
“It really puts into perspective how amazingly ahead of her time she was. She wasn’t the first woman to study civil engineering at Cal Berkeley, but she was the first woman to use that degree professionally,” Kastner said. “She was the first woman to go to Paris and be admitted to and graduate from the École des Beaux-Arts. And then, upon her return to California, she became the first woman to become a licensed architect.”
“But beyond that, she designed 700 buildings over the course of her career, and San Simeon received only one number: 503,” Kastner said.
Kastner’s current project is leading a team that compiles these private letters and other writings about Morgan into a searchable database that others can access.
“Our job was to transcribe it and we’re proofreading it now, but we’re going to put it online for anyone from anywhere to study the Julia Morgan archives, which are there at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the Special Collections.” the Robert E. Kennedy Library. That’s where her main collection is, and to tell you how big it is, our transcriptions are 800,000 words.
According to Kastner, this collection of words sheds light on a woman who has not only made strides in recognizing women as great architects, but has also earned the respect of her employees and peers.
“She was very well respected by her staff and in good years was a very generous employer. She divided the profits her office made among the employees and shared in the profits. She really never cared about money; she loved her children and treated them almost like her own nephews and nieces,” Kastner said.
“But she [also] She definitely wanted her job to be meticulously done, and she definitely wanted to be in control. Many architects of their day would reassign an employee to another client, and then it became their job – never Julia Morgan. She was always up to date,” said Kastner.
But Kastner agrees with Fuglie that despite the respect she received from those who knew her, Morgan’s work has long gone unappreciated, even ignored.
“[In 1957], Life Magazine did a cover story – 14 pages, with the Neptune Pool on the cover – all about San Simeon through photos and essays. Julia Morgan’s name was never mentioned,” Kastner said.
“It’s shocking to think about and it lasted until the ’60s. She was completely ignored – Joan Didion wrote an entire essay entitled ‘Return to Xanadu’ about nothing but San Simeon and its architectural impact, but Julia Morgan’s name was never mentioned. “
Decades later, Julia Morgan finally seems to be garnering widespread respect in the world of architecture. In 2014, the American Institute of Architects posthumously awarded her a gold medal, her highest honor. Senator Dianne Feinstein, in their recommendation for this awardcalled Morgan “undoubtedly one of the greatest American architects of all time and a true Californian gem”.
“She was the first woman in over a hundred years to receive this honor,” said Kastner. “I think that really helped propel her onto the stage for international recognition, which was long overdue.”