Victoria Kastner Explores the Inner World of Architect Julia Morgan
Victoria Kastner first encountered what is now known as Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, when she was a graduate student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1978. She had heard of the site, but back in those days it was considered dark and gaudy, far from an architectural marvel. “I went on a tour expecting that that was what I would encounter,” Kastner says.
As it turned out, she immediately became enamored with the place. She soon left her graduate program and teaching gig to work there, eventually becoming the site’s historian until she retired in 2018. Her retirement coincided with her mission to write a book specifically about the castle’s architect, Julia Morgan. Morgan was best known for her longstanding professional partnership with media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, though she completed hundreds of projects throughout her career, which primarily took place in California.
In the years since her death in 1957, Morgan’s reputation has risen from relative obscurity to that of one of the United States’ most distinguished architects. But Kastner’s recently published book, Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect, provides the first holistic look at Morgan’s private life in addition to her architectural work. Kastner spoke with us about the book.
Why did you feel now was the time to add a new book to the Julia Morgan historiography?
I felt that I had the ability to write about her in a way that others couldn’t because I had not only this deep knowledge of her work for William Randolph Hearst, I had access to the Hearst Corporation archives, and I spent literally decades working with [Morgan’s] archives at Cal Poly. I also grew up in the East Bay, so I had a deep knowledge and experience about the Bay Area, and I felt that those things gave me extra insight. Also having given so many lectures around the country, I knew that people knew about her and were interested in her, but a lot of what they knew and learned or believed was not accurate.
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What are some misconceptions about Morgan?
One assumption that people made is that she didn’t have a style. She was definitely denigrated for that, especially in the 1970s and '80s. I would respond that the style is an approach. What she did all throughout her career was marry the formality and the actuality and the elegance and grandeur of the Beaux Arts style with the warmth and the individuality of the Arts and Crafts style.
She was accommodative and so empathetic. She never forgot that architecture should honor the people it shelters. To me, I would argue that that’s a deeper way to talk about her work stylistically. When it’s looked at like that, her whole is tremendously unified. The smallest and biggest projects have the same level of consideration.
How have perceptions about Morgan’s work changed over time?
I saw the pendulum of taste really change in the '80s and early '90s. People who had just written [Hearst Castle] off as, you know, Xanadu from Citizen Kane, began to be much more interested and really saw it as a product of its era and an extraordinary place.
The other big [thing] that happened was in 2014 when the American Institute of Architects (AIA) posthumously awarded her the Gold Medal. She was the first woman [to win] in their 100-year history of giving that award. I was one of the members of the nominating committee. I really didn’t think they would pick her because she didn’t build on the East Coast and she wasn’t that well known beyond San Simeon. Anyway, when that happened, I think things really changed because suddenly she can be mentioned in the same breath as Robert Venturi, [Denise] Scott Brown, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan. That put her on a cultural map.
In the book, you note that Morgan rarely discussed being a woman in a male-dominated field, which may lead some people to overlook the challenges she faced. What were some of those?
Her nephew Morgan North tells about a man who did a poor job of laying floors on a building. She came to inspect, and she wouldn’t approve it. He kind of glowered at her. And then he thrust the paper and a pen under her nose like a vacuum cleaner salesman and tried to intimidate her into signing. And Morgan North said she gave him the coldest look [he had] ever seen anyone give. And until he ripped off that floor, he was not going to get paid.
I don’t think we can really know how often she was treated in a demeaning way. But the interesting thing is that even when she’s writing to herself in her diary, it doesn’t come up. She just doesn’t give it any energy. She did not feel the injustice in a way that was ever made evident on paper that I could find. She just kept going, and she found another way. She was indomitable.
Why did you feel it was important to dive deeply into Morgan’s early life and familial, especially sibling, relationships?
I was astounded at what I found. I think that the other books—and there have been many and I commend my fellow authors—they’ve been about her buildings. It’s just that I think that the really great architects and more than that, the really great artists, male or female, we want to know about their interior life. We really want to know who they are. And I felt that was extremely important. She was close with the members of her family, but her life was tinged with all these tragedies. So, I felt that it does bring resonance to all that she did do when you also know all of what she was contending with.
How important was Morgan’s relationship to California in her work?
I think it’s absolutely essential. She was part of this wonderful, amazing brain trust of Californian architects, whether it’s Charles and Henry Greene or [Bernard] Maybeck, Willis Polk, or John Galen Howard, or Ernest Coxhead. But not a single one of those people was from California. [Julia] was a native Californian. And I think that that made a great difference. I think her awareness of the site and the landscape of California made a big difference.
For her it was always two things: the client and the setting. For her national and international fame it’s been an impediment that her work was done in the American West. But I think for her oeuvre and for us to understand and appreciate [it], I think she magnificently dealt with both of those aspects. She said herself that she considered it very fortunate that she practiced architecture in the place where she grew up.
What were some of the more surprising findings you made during your research?
Knowing as much as I did about what she did all the time between 1919 and 1947, to find out all the other stuff she was doing, I mean hokey smokes. A day still has just 24 hours in it. It’s amazing. And how peripatetic she was. She made 568 trips by train to San Simeon, and I’m not counting all these other places. And honestly it was too much. You know, her health suffered.
It’s hard because she is such an admirable person and I tried hard to maintain a level of objectivity about my subject and certainly one area where she could be deservedly faulted is that she didn’t have an off button. She couldn’t regulate. She worked all the time. She loved what she did, but it took its toll on her health for sure.
What are some of Morgan’s buildings that are overlooked and deserve more attention?
I think one of the most astonishing buildings is in Oakland. It’s a columbarium, a mausoleum for crematory urns. It’s called the Chapel of the Chimes. It’s the back cover of the book. I think in [a] caption, I call it lyrical and reverent. It is an absolutely extraordinary building. You have to go there to experience how exalted a building it is, how deeply spiritual a building it is, and how consoling a building it is. Even in times of grief and loss, your heart can be eased by encountering beauty. It is jaw-dropping. I would say that that is an unmissable building.
With the book complete, how would you sum up Morgan’s legacy?
I would put it in the perspective of time. She really in a way lived out of her time. If we look at other American architects, I can only come up with two who were in anyway equivalent, in their design, to the scale at which she worked. And that would be Stanford White and Richard Morris Hunt, and they were a lot older than she was and really more grounded in the 19th century. You know, I think it’s absolutely remarkable that she was building in a style that in any other world would be palatial. I mean, you start naming the people who have palaces, it’s not a big list throughout history. She did it in the 20th century, she did it as a woman.
*All photos in this article appear in Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect by Victoria Kastner, published by Chronicle Books 2022.
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