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Arts and Life

Hearst Castle reopens with a focus on "remarkable" female architect Julia Morgan

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Benjamin Purper
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Hearst Castle tour guide Sharon Foelz stands in front of the main castle building, La Casa Grande.

Hearst Castle in San Simeon is one of the Central Coast’s iconic tourist destinations, drawing visitors from both near and far to see the coastal view, massive art collection and ornate architecture.

The estate, now operated by California State Parks, reopened May 11 after more than two years of closure from pandemic restrictions and road repairs. Staff are offering a revamped tour focusing on the castle’s architect Julia Morgan, and two local authors with recently-released books about her say she’s finally being recognized for her role in California architecture and Central Coast history.

The estate, now a historical landmark, was closed for 26 months after the pandemic closed operations and a winter storm in 2021 damaged the access road.

Now, the estate is once again to the public with a renewed focus on Morgan. Tour guide Sharon Foelz said Julia Morgan’s time working with owner and newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst building the castle was challenging, because he changed his mind notoriously often.

“She actually built [the Neptune pool] three times. Many things were torn out, rebuilt and rebuilt," Foelz said.

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Benjamin Purper
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The iconic Neptune pool at Hearst Castle.

But Foelz says while Morgan did do what Hearst requested, even if it could be a frustrating process, she wasn’t being pushed around. She may have been a quiet person, but as the first licensed female architect in California, she also commanded respect from not only her staff, but Hearst himself.

"This was a very driven woman," Foelz said.

Victoria Kastner is a local author who’s studied Julia Morgan for decades, and has a new biography on her out this year. She said Hearst Castle was just one of Morgan’s more than 700 projects, and she started on it in 1919 — before women had even secured the right to vote.

“It shows how remarkable she was. Actually, there are very few architects in American history who have built on the same palatial scale as she did," Kastner said.

Morgan was from San Francisco, and Kastner said the architect and engineer took a lot of pride in being Californian. She also grew to deeply appreciate the Central Coast, spending a lot of time in San Simeon and sometimes staying in San Luis Obispo.

“She made 568 trips to San Simeon, so she grew to love it," Kastner said.

On Kastner’s first trip to Hearst Castle in the 1970’s, a tour guide mentioned that no one knew much about Morgan then. Since that tour, Kastner has made it her mission to learn more about the architect and educate locals in SLO County and the rest of the world about who Morgan was and why she matters.

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Benjamin Purper
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The visitor's center offers views of the SLO County mountains and Hearst Castle in the distance.

“I think they know it’s significant, but they’re not sure why. I think there’s a great deal more to discover and share about Julia Morgan, and I’m eager to do so," Kastner said.

Gordon Fuglie is another local historian with a book out about Morgan and the wider architecture of this era in history, known as the California Renaissance. He pointed out that Morgan posthumously received a gold medal from the American Institute of Architects in 2014, and was the first woman to receive that honor.

Fuglie said that reveals an ongoing re-evaluation of Morgan and the architecture of that period.

“If you look closely at the ideals and the ideas that informed this architecture, not just by Morgan but by her colleagues, it is a way to see how the historical past and the greatness that we see, and it can still speak to us today.," Fuglie said.

Fuglie said he thinks it’s unique that he and Kastner, two historians in the relatively small county of San Luis Obispo, are doing such 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 authors will continue that.

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Benjamin Purper
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A view of the estate's gardens and palm trees.

“I’m looking forward to what the third generation will produce, because there’s much more to consider and interpret and make known," Fuglie said.

Those local historians could benefit from Kastner’s current project of transcribing and digitizing a massive amount of documents related to Julia Morgan stored at Cal Poly SLO, which will eventually be searchable.

Back at the castle, Museum Director Cara O’Brien said she’s excited to put so much focus on a remarkable figure like Morgan. She said after more than two years of closure, the staff’s energy is high and everyone —including her — is really excited.

“It’s just been way too long. We’re so, so ready. We’ve been ready for a long time," O'Brien said.

Hearst Castle and its Julia Morgan tour reopened Wednesday morning to visitors, who can now see Morgan’s legacy for themselves.

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Shanbrom Family Foundation.

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