Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Book Review: Julia Morgan Built a Castle

Who was Julia Morgan? She was the architect who designed and oversaw the building of William Randolph Hearst’s castle in San Simeon, California. This picture book biography is about a young woman with a dream—a woman who was to become the first female to receive a certificate in architecture from the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the first licensed woman architect in California.

This is a book especially recommended for sharing with students during Women’s History Month.

Written by
Celeste Davidson Mannis
Illustrated by
Miles Hyman
Viking, 2006

Julia’s Early Life

Julia Morgan was born in 1872 and raised in Oakland, California. Her father was an engineer who “enjoyed taking the family on tours through construction sites” in San Francisco. To Julia, the buildings seemed like “huge puzzles”—and she “wanted to know how everything fit together.” Sometimes her family visited her cousin Pierre LeBrun in New York. LeBrun was an architect. He designed the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, one of the first skyscrapers constructed in Manhattan.

It would seem these early experiences must have inspired Julia’s dream of becoming an architect some day. There were no schools nearby that taught architecture so Julia studied engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. She was the only female in her class. There was much to learn and think about: the effect of earthquakes, wind, and gravity on buildings; how to anchor buildings securely to the ground; how beams and columns carry weight; when to use particular types of building materials.
Bernard Maybeck, Julia’s favorite teacher, helped her with math and with putting “the pieces together.”

Maybeck was also an architect. Like Julia’s cousin Pierre, he had studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which was considered “the greatest school of architecture in the world.” Julia went to work for Maybeck after her graduation in 1895—but she still longed to become an architect herself. She wanted to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, too. Unfortunately, the school did not admit women. When Julia heard word that the school might soon accept female students, she packed her luggage and headed for France.

Julia did not get her wish…right away. The school wouldn’t even allow her to take the entrance exam. That did not deter this determined young woman. She studied for the test anyway. She learned to speak and write in French. She visited museums and palaces and Gothic cathedrals.

Then, more than a year after Julia had arrived in France, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts decided to let her take the entrance exam. In fact, she was required to take it three times! She was finally accepted into the architecture program in the fall of 1898. In 1902, she became the first woman to receive a certificate in architecture.

Julia returned to the United States and opened an “atelier” in San Francisco. One of the commissions she received was from Mills College to design “a lofty bell tower” for the school’s campus. Julia used steel-reinforced concrete in hopes of making it “strong and resistant to fire.” Some doubted the young woman knew what she was doing. They thought building the tower according to her specifications would be too expensive. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 proved that this woman knew exactly what she was doing. Many of the city’s buildings were reduced to rubble—but not the bell tower. It remained standing—as did all of the other buildings she had designed.

The Castle at San Simeon

In 1919, William Randolph Hearst asked Julia to design a home for land he owned in the Santa Lucia Mountains—a place where he and his family camped in summer. Hearst was delighted with Julia’s plans for his property; a large main house on top of the highest hill, three smaller guesthouses, lush gardens, and a walkway. Much had to be done to prepare the site—including leveling the top of the hill with dynamite. So many workers and artisans were needed at San Simeon, that dormitories had to be built for them—and cooks hired to feed them.

The castle at San Simeon was years in the making. Hearst sometimes made changes. “Once Mr. Hearst had a chimney torn done and moved, then torn down again and put back exactly where it was to begin with.” There were additions to the original plan: a movie theater, an airstrip—and even a zoo!

During the twenty-eight years Julia spent working on Mr. Hearst’s dream home, she also completed projects for other clients. But, as the author writes in the last sentence “the castle Julia Morgan built tells her story to this day.”

An Author’s Note includes further information about Julia Morgan. Some interesting facts about the castle and the rest of the property are provided in a sidebar entitled More about San Simeon.

Miles Hyman's soft-edged, colorful illustrations have an impressionistic look. They're lovely and a fine complement to Mannis's biography of a women, who during her lifetime, designed nearly eight hundred buildings--including a majestic showplace that stands as a symbol of her creativity and talent.

Learn More about Julia Morgan and the Hearst Castle

More about Julia Morgan from the Hearst Castle Website

Hearst Castle—La Cuesta Encantada

Hearst Castle Facts and Stats


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