Traveling with Julia Morgan

hearst castle
The Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Photo courtesy of California State Parks.

Our travel writer visits some properties designed by Julia Morgan, who is responsible for the look of more than 800 buildings in California and beyond.

The first time I stayed at Asilomar Hotel & Conference Grounds, in 2014, I learned when I checked in that there had been a slight problem with reservations and overbookings. I was there for a conference, evidently one among several taking place at the sprawling, bucolic acreage, where signs directed what seemed to be hundreds of guests to lodging and meeting rooms with names like Oak Knoll, Manzanita, Cypress and Madrone.

The clerk apologized for the mix-up but noted that the room I would be sleeping in was perhaps Asilomar’s most unique—and rare for hotels and lodges around the country—because it had just one single twin bed. I was traveling alone and I was suddenly amused and curious. Indeed, when I walked into the room, I felt like Anne of Green Gables, alone in my quaint, rustic alcove covered in dark paneling with a dainty antique writing desk facing a window and a bed just like the one I had as a teenager.

Asilomar Hotel
Asilomar Hotel & Conference Grounds.

On that visit, I felt like I had been personally introduced to Julia Morgan, the architect behind not only Asilomar but plenty of other buildings, most of which enjoy national or state landmark protection. I would gradually become so enamored of Morgan, her life and work that five years later, I’m still tending a mild obsession: a quest to visit as many of her masterpieces as possible.

Fortunately, several of those are within striking distance of Sacramento, and the capital is home to one of them.

I wax poetic about all of this in part because my family history plays out across several of Morgan’s buildings. At the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in the early 1960s, my mother, appearing in glamorous black-and-white photos, was evidently a fashionable fixture at the Tonga Room—thanks in no small part to Morgan, who was hired to repair the hotel’s structure following the 1906 earthquake and had the forethought to employ reinforced concrete, an innovation at the time. Later, when my father attended UC Berkeley to study engineering, he seems to have been impressed with Morgan’s design and structure of the Berkeley Women’s City Club (now the Berkeley City Club), posing for pictures before the stunning part-new Gothic, part-Moorish façade. Other family photos show my parents on a visit with relatives from Europe touring Hearst Castle.

I heard only earlier this year about the Julia Morgan House on T Street in Sacramento, stumbling upon it as I was searching for a wedding venue. When I contacted Laura E. Zieg, catering manager for Epicure Catering (which services Sacramento State) to inquire, she told me that the university no longer offers the house for wedding ceremonies and receptions; it is available only for university meetings and conferences. Nonetheless, I was curious to see the house interior, which is no longer open for public tours, so I asked Zieg if a private visit might be possible.

One sunny May afternoon, I passed through the well-manicured garden behind Morgan’s Mediterranean Revival manor house, which she designed in 1918 for the Goethe family, and which was later considered to replace the old Governor’s Mansion in downtown Sacramento, to meet with Zieg. She first showed me the commanding staircase made of teak, a durable hardwood that I later read was plentiful following World War I as naval war surplus material. It also cools the upstairs, demonstrating Morgan’s talent, in this case, for countering Sacramento’s hot summer months. Guiding me through the kitchen, which has been modernized but still retains its early 20th century charm, Zieg showed me a washroom with handsome border tiles, originally designed by Morgan and portraying griffins and dragons. Likewise, in the parlor and above the fireplace, an august stone carving of boys with drums evokes Morgan’s penchant for the Renaissance.

Hearst Castle exterior
The Hearst Castle exterior.

Here is also where I stood before a photo of Morgan as a young woman, taken around 1890, shortly before she headed to Paris to study architecture. Until then, I had seen only what seemed to be an official photo of her, and my impression had been that of a mousy and bookish matron. But here, she appeared serious, inquisitive, focused. Morgan had applied three times to study at the prestigious École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which before 1896 had never allowed a woman entry. Two years later, she was admitted; a headline in the San Francisco Examiner took note with “California Girl Wins High Honor.” Less than a decade later, she graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in civil engineering. By 1904, she was the first woman to receive an architect’s license in California.

Skepticism about her ability may have galvanized Morgan, leading her to accept seemingly any and all commissions. I thought of this a week after visiting the Sacramento estate as I walked with my friends Angela and Stacey along the north shore of Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. We had come here to see what I had read was Morgan’s design of the U.S. Immigration Station.

As we explored the exhibit there, however, we learned that while the complex had opened in 1910 and had included detention barracks, an administration building, infirmary, power plant and pier, Morgan had been recruited later to help with expansion, namely the design of 12 small bungalow cottages for staff members and their families.

I asked the ranger whether Morgan was aware of the complex’s purpose; the Angel Island exhibit makes clear that immigrants, disoriented and shaken from their journey, faced discrimination and harsh questioning as they awaited official entry to the United States. It’s unlikely, we were told; the commission had come from Morgan’s brother-in-law, Hart H. North, to help her after she had established her architecture firm in San Francisco between 1907 and 1910. Sadly, there is nothing more to see of the bungalows, which fell into disrepair and in 1971 burned down amid a fire-training exercise during the filming of Robert Redford’s “The Candidate.”

Julia Morgan House
The Julia Morgan House in Sacramento.

Morgan’s reputation would eventually attract her largest commercial client, the Young Women’s Christian Association, or YWCA, and her largest project for them is Asilomar. Between 1913 and 1928, Morgan would map out the Arts & Craft buildings, using granite stones and redwood and in each of the rooms allowing for natural light to play off of the wood’s natural beauty.

In April, I chauffeured my spry 85-year-old mother to Asilomar, where we overnighted in a room just like the simple quarters I’d slumbered in a few years before but now with two twin beds. It was still light out, so we strolled to the beach, passing sand dunes and the numerous deer that roam the premises, and later, we peeked inside the soaring yet subdued chapel, which now serves as a meeting hall.

That evening, we drove into Carmel-by-the-Sea for dinner at Grasings, a quaint corner restaurant from which we watched passersby while nibbling on warm Napa cabbage salad, paella and herb-crusted sea bass. I also marveled at the restaurant’s extensive wine list. At 75 pages, it was by far the most impressive I’d ever seen, delaying me awhile before I decided on a glass of a Cabernet Sauvignon blend produced by Le P’tit Paysan on California’s central coast.

We headed southward the next morning. This stretch of coastline is often said to be the Golden State’s most dramatic, as Highway 1 clings to a rugged shore and passes over the iconic 100-year-old Bixby Creek Bridge. My mother was transfixed by the ocean views during the several hours of curves and ascents it took us to reach Hearst Castle at San Simeon.

The night before at Asilomar, I had read about Morgan’s frequent treks during her commission to design and build Hearst’s dream home. Not only did she have to ascend a steep dirt path from the shoreline on either foot or on horseback across 5 miles of cutbacks, but reaching San Simeon also required Morgan to leave her San Francisco office on Friday afternoons, travel for eight hours by train across 200 miles to San Luis Obispo and then backtrack 50 miles north to San Simeon. This remoteness required, too, that she devise a water delivery system once Hearst brought her on board to begin construction. He was notably familiar with her talent and work, by then having commissioned her to design the Los Angeles Examiner building around 1914. For his planned royal digs, he simply told Morgan he wanted “something a little more comfortable on the hill.”

Our journey was far more pleasant, including on the tour bus that delivered us from the visitor center to the foot of Hearst Castle. There, we were led up a short winding outdoor staircase to the flamboyant Neptune Pool, which last year underwent a $10 million restoration. Initially, Morgan had thought to design the pool smaller and shaped as a clover framed with palm trees. Hearst encouraged her to think bigger. She did, adding marble colonnades from imperial Rome, so as to resemble a temple, and eventually adding a sculptured Neptune and two Nereids as the focal point, and then mermaids weaving amid Venus rising from the sea. Under California’s sunshine, the pool’s blue water and typically azure skies make for utter decadence, and the day of our visit was no exception. The point here for Hearst and his equally eccentric guests—from George Bernard Shaw to Barbara Stanwyck—was limitless decadence.

I felt therefore just a little reluctant as the guide ushered us toward the aptly named Casa Grande to talk with us about the castle’s signature edifice before leading us indoors. It was the glorious four-story western façade, with its twin bell towers and appealing Mediterranean tiles, that had first captured my delightful impression of Hearst Castle during a visit several years prior, and I was still gobsmacked at the view. We now craned our necks to take in the elaborately carved doorways, the main one of which is modeled after one at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain.

We then entered the cool, dark Assembly Room, gazing up at the high wood-carved ceilings. Surrounding us were Flemish tapestries and 17th century carved and gilded columns, and one of Hearst’s most valuable sculptures: Antonio Canova’s Venus. From there, we followed the guide into the Gothic-style Refectory, or dining room, where a long dining table was set with extravagant Northern European silverware—despite, according to our guide, Hearst’s relatively simple tastes, which included serving ketchup and pickles in their labeled jars and offering guests paper napkins during the meal.

hearst castle library
The Hearst Castle library.

Passing opulence upon opulence, we eventually reached the Theatre, where Hearst would enjoy watching the latest Hollywood films with his guests, many of whom, like Cary Grant and Joan Crawford, were starring in them. We instead saw film footage of various Hearst parties, including scenes with Charlie Chaplin and Hearst’s mistress, the comedienne Marion Davies, lounging around the garden. And then, barely visible but for a moment, there was a scene with Morgan who, upon noticing the camera trained on her, covers her face.

To this day, very little has been written about this unassuming woman—believe me, I’ve searched. She never granted an interview, never married or had children, and lived modestly.

But whatever the case, whether she was bashful or just single-minded about her work to the extent she avoided socializing, The New York Times in March published her long-overdue obituary as part of its series on remarkable people whose deaths never received mention in the paper.

Architecture, construction and engineering, they noted, are still today dominated by men, and yet, observed architect and lawyer Julia Donoho to the Times, “all the biases against her she turned into assets.”