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Two new books from Central Coast authors shed light on Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan's legacy

Façade of Casa Grande at Hearst Castle, Julia Morgan, San Simeon, California
Façade of Casa Grande at Hearst Castle, Julia Morgan, San Simeon, California

San Luis Obispo County’s iconic Hearst Castle in San Simeon reopened in May after a years-long closure from COVID-19 and a major overhaul of the road leading up to the estate. Tour guides there are now focusing on the legacy of the castle’s architect, Julia Morgan, whose career and work on Hearst Castle blazed trails for women architects in that period.

Two local historians, Gordon Fuglie and Victoria Kastner, have new books out profiling Julia Morgan’s life and work, hoping to shed light on a legacy they say is just now getting its due.

The Road to San Simeon

"I would categorize it as the world of Julia Morgan," said Gordon Fuglie, author of "Julia Morgan: The Road to San Simeon, Visionary Architect of the California Renaissance."

The cover of Gordon Fuglie's new book published by Rizzoli Electa.
Courtesy of Rizzoli Electa
The cover of Gordon Fuglie's new book published by Rizzoli Electa.

"It's not just about her, but also the architectural period in which she lived: the cultural streams and currents that influence her, her colleagues and why this group of architects all educated in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris were making architecture they thought would define California, at this crucial moment when California was entering the modern era," Fuglie said.

That California setting, Fuglie said, is one of the defining characteristics of Morgan's work. Though she was educated in Paris, she was native to California.

"There was a world of difference between Paris and San Francisco at that time. So it meant that all these architects, while they were looking to use a classical style, they also had to adapt to the California environment, the milieu," he said.

"There was a lot of thinking going on in the 1890s up through the 1920s about well, what is American architecture? Many thinkers were saying, we should take the inheritance of Europe and make it our own in California, which was far removed from New York, Chicago, Boston, etc.," Fuglie said. "That would be a Mediterranean style, and also a nod towards the mission style, and so you get an eclecticism among the architects."

Fuglie said this broader focus on the California Renaissance through the lens of Julia Morgan was an expansion of the book's original intent.

"When I begin this project in 2017, the book was designed to be the exhibition catalogue for a show of Julian Morgan's architectural drawings, which believe it or not, have never been exhibited in an art museum," Fuglie said. "And through the changes and chances of the museum world, plus COVID, the book morphed and evolved."

Fuglie's book is a collection of his own work and contributions from other authors, including Kastner. He said it aims to renew interest and appreciation of Morgan's work not only on Hearst Castle, but of her role in helping shape the architectural California Renaissance.

Gordon Fuglie signs copies of his new book on Julia Morgan at the Atascadero Public Library.
Gordon Fuglie
Gordon Fuglie signs copies of his new book on Julia Morgan at the Atascadero Public Library.

"I'm hoping that as both of our books begin to be critically reviewed and enjoyed by people interested in Julian Morgan and in California architecture, that they will also reevaluate their assessment of this period. As Victoria and I both have mentioned, it became disparaged and looked down upon," 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.

“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.

Fuglie also noted that his and Kastner's work are part of a growing trend of reexamining the contributions of women in architecture, including those of Julia Morgan, who he said is starting to finally get her due.

"I'm happy to say that as we turn the century, there is a building momentum to recognize women in the visual arts and architecture, and to give them more parity in the art historical record. So that's the main contribution Victoria [Kastner] and I think it made: a larger panorama of art and architectural history than the previously restricted one," he said.

Fuglie said one reason Morgan's work has been relatively under-admired until now is because of the period of modernism which dominated the art world in the years after the end of her career.

"It was this unfortunate interregnum between what came before and then the triumph of modernism, but if you look closely and carefully at the ideals and the ideas that informed this architecture — not just Morgan's, but her colleagues too — it's a way to see how the historical past and the greatness that we see in it still can speak to us today. We overlook it at our peril."

Library at Case Grande, Hearst Castle, Julia Morgan, San Simeon, California.
Library at Case Grande, Hearst Castle, Julia Morgan, San Simeon, California.

An Intimate Biography of a Trailblazing Architect

Victoria Kastner is the former official historian of Hearst Castle, who has written what she calls the "definitive trilogy" of works on the famous estate.

Her new book, "Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect," profiles Morgan's private life in detail using never-before-published letters.

"She exchanged 2,462 letters with William Randolph Hearst, the most revealing of which was the final one, which has never been in print before. So [the book] really reveals her private thoughts and personal life," Kastner said.

These documents, Kastner said, add depth to the historical record of one of the country's most influential architects.

"It really puts in perspective how astonishingly ahead of her time she was. She was not 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 with a certificate from the École des Beaux-Arts. And then, she was the first woman on her return to California to be a licensed architect."

Courtyard of the Palais des Études, École des Beaux-Arts, Paris.
Patrick Isogood 2019/Shutterstock
Courtyard of the Palais des Études, École des Beaux-Arts, Paris.

"But more than that, she designed 700 buildings throughout her career, and San Simeon was only given one number: 503," Kastner said.

Kastner's current project is leading a team compiling these private letters and other writings about Morgan into a searchable database for others to draw on.

"Our job has been to transcribe it, and we're proofreading it now, but we're going to post it online so that anyone from anywhere is going to be able to study the archives of Julia Morgan, which are local there at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo at the Robert E. Kennedy Library 's special collections. That's where her primary collection is, and to tell you how vast it is, our transcriptions are 800,000 words."

That collection of words, according to Kastner, sheds light on a woman who not only made headway on women's ability to be recognized as great architects, but also commanded respect from her staff and peers.

"She was very much respected by her staff, and she was a very generous employer in good years. She would divide the profits that her office made among the staff, and do profit sharing. She really never cared about money; she loved their children and treated them almost like her own nephews and nieces," Kastner said.

The Palace of Fine Arts was designed by Bernard Maybeck, a contemporary of Julia Morgan also trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Jon Sullivan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco was designed by Bernard Maybeck, a contemporary of Julia Morgan who was also educated at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

"But she [also] definitely wanted her work to be done in a meticulous way, and she definitely wanted to have control. Lots of architects of her era would assign an employee to another client, and then it sort of became their job — never Julia Morgan. She was always on top of things," Kastner said.

But Kastner agrees with Fuglie that despite the respect she received from those who knew her, Morgan's work was long 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 photographs and essays. Julia Morgan's name was never mentioned," Kastner said.

"It's shocking to think of that, and it continued through the 60's. She was completely ignored — Joan Didion wrote a whole essay called 'Return to Xanadu' about nothing but San Simeon and its architectural impact, but Julia Morgan's name was never mentioned."

Decades later, Julia Morgan seems to finally be receiving widespread respect by the world of architecture. In 2014, the American Institute of Architects gave her a posthumous gold medal, their highest honor. Senator Dianne Feinstein, in her recommendation for that award, called Morgan "unquestionably among the greatest American architects of all time and a true California gem."

"She was the first woman to ever receive that honor in more than a hundred years," Kastner said. "I think that really made a difference as far as putting her on the stage of international appreciation, which has been long overdue."

"Julia Morgan: The Road to San Simeon, Visionary Architect of the California Renaissance" includes contributions from Gordon Fuglie, Jeffrey T. Tilman, Karen McNeill, Johanna Kahn, Elizabeth McMillian, Kirby William Brown and Victoria Kastner. "Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect" was written By Victoria Kastner.

Christina McDermott mixed the audio for this story, and Carol Tangeman provided additional voicing.

Benjamin Purper was News Director of KCBX from May of 2021 to September of 2023. He came from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.
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