Julia Morgan, Pioneering Architect, Kappa Alpha Theta


Julia Morgan, Kappa Alpha Theta

The renowned architect Julia Morgan was a native Californian. She was born in San Francisco on January 20, 1872. Morgan entered the University of California at Berkeley where she became a member of the Omega Chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta, which was founded in 1890.

She was one of the first women to graduate from Berkeley with a civil engineering degree. Although she developed a keen interest in architecture, there were no architecture programs on the west coast. After graduation, she headed to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. At that time there were entrance exams and the school was not very welcoming of foreigners. She did not take “no” for an answer. Instead of returning home, she spent two years studying and working in a Paris studio to prove herself and her interest in the field. Morgan was the first woman to enter the Ecole’s Department of Architecture. Four years later, she graduated and returned to California.

Morgan was the first woman in California to be granted an architect’s license. She first worked with John Galen Howard in San Francisco. At the time he was supervising the University of California Master Plan and she worked on several campus buildings.

Morgan opened her own office on 1904. Her first independent commission was a bell tower on the Mills College campus, a structure that withstood the 1906 earthquake. The rebuilding after the earthquake resulted in a number of commissions for her.

In 1908, she designed her chapter’s first official house; at 2723 Durant, it included a swimming pool. Pheobe Apperson Hearst hired Morgan to remodel her Hacienda del Pozo de Verona in Pleasanton, California. In 1919, Hearst’s son, William Randolph, hired Morgan to design a main building and guest houses for his ranch at San Simeon. She spent the next 28 years overseeing almost every aspect of the Hearst Castle.

In 1924, the Theta House Association knew changes had to be made to the Kappa Alpha Theta house because it “was no longer adequate or convenient” for the growing chapter.  They loved the house with its “long low living and dining rooms which were so easily thrown into one commodious hall for parties. Even the aquarium held a special niche in our affections.”[1]

The House Association asked Morgan’s advice. Although she was busy designing a Los Angeles home for girls in the film industry, sponsored by the Y.W.C.A. (Hollywood Studio Club), an orphanage in San Francisco, and several private homes, she made time for her Theta sisters.  According to a report, “It would have been very expensive to entirely rebuild; moreover, she knew every beam and joist in that three storied, shingled building and she knew what possibilities were hidden away.  Today, the same old framework and foundation are clothed in soft creamy stucco fashioned in the English Tudor style. The house now faces the garden and in all ways is different from the former one. Inside are six beautiful carved doors and a stately stone fireplace, the gifts of Miss Morgan’s generosity.”[2]

To meet updated structural safety standards, architect Gardner A. Dailey rebuilt the house in 1940. An addition to the west side of the house was added in 1956. A Steinway grand piano from Morgan’s home remains a link for the chapter to one of its most distinguished alumnae.

In the 1920s, Morgan designed a home for the Delta Zeta chapter at 2311 LeConte Avenue; the Presbyterian Westminster House now owns it. She also designed the Georgian-style house on Piedmont Avenue in which Kappa Kappa Gamma’s Pi Chapter now resides. It was originally built for Chancellor Charles Mills Gayley.

Morgan and her staff designed more than 800 buildings. During her 45 years of practice she shared her profits with her staff. In 1927, she was described by a Theta sister, “Julia Morgan is modest; she prefers to remain unsung. But with the evidence of her success and of her thoughtful kindness before us always, we are proud to number her among Theta alumnae.”[3]

She died in 1957 at the age of 85. In 2008, she was inducted into the California Hall of Fame. Although she never married, there was at least one other fraternity woman in her family. A grand niece, Ellen North, became a member of the Chi Omega chapter at the UC – Berkeley in the 1970s.

[1] Kappa Alpha Theta, January 1927, p. 171.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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