Ask most people “Who is Julia Morgan?”—and if the person has even heard of California’s first licensed woman architect, they will probably reply, “Didn’t she have something to do with San Simeon?” In recent years, the late Morgan has finally come into her own regarding the wedding cake confection (now a California State Park) she designed and built for newspaper baron, William Randolph Hearst, on the coast in Central California over two decades: 1919 to 1939.
Far less known are the details of Morgan’s role in the extraordinary recovery of San Francisco in the wake of the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. Uncovering this story became an obsession of mine when my husband and I moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 1998 and rented a flat on Nob Hill, a few blocks for the fabled Fairmont Hotel.
I soon learned from our building manager that Julia Morgan had not only restored the Fairmont, built some 600 structures around the San Francisco Bay Area, but had also designed and constructed the apartments in our small, elegant complex.
IMAGE: Fairmont interior destruction
Intrigued, I came across some insurance company photographs showing the absolute devastation of the very spot where we were living! The cataclysm, in similar fashion to the recent temblors in Haiti and Japan, had obliterated some 480 city blocks and left 250,000 of 400,000 San Franciscans living in tents and shacks in the parks for up to two-and-a-half years.
The Fairmont, built on the bedrock of Nob Hill, survived the quake in good shape, but was deeply scarred by the fired that roared through this most posh of San Francisco neighborhoods.
Perhaps the Fairmont’s restoration saga and Julia Morgan’s role in it is a little-known tale, partly due to the fact the hotel was designed by someone else—two people, in fact—brothers James and Merritt Reid, though James seemed to have been the principal architect, & Merritt the business head of the original team.
The beautiful, beaux-arts jewel of Nob Hill, a 600-room edifice, had been a couple of days shy of its grand opening when the 1906 earthquake struck. Furniture, it’s said, was still in packing crates when the firestorm roared through.
In the aftermath, Julia Morgan, seen here in later years with Hearst on the Hearst Castle grounds, was considered “merely” the architect who came in and put the Fairmont back the way it was before the horrendous events that took place 105 years ago April 18 at 5:11, 5:12– or 5:13 a.m.– (depending on your historic source).
Another reason that most Americans aren’t aware of Morgan’s astonishing achievement regarding the Fairmont is anchored deeply in Morgan’s own personality.
By all accounts, she possessed an almost morbid aversion to being photographed or written about. In this photo of her with her Kappa Alpha Theta sorority sisters at UC Berkeley in the early 1890s, she is on the far left. In fact, she’s practically standing out of the picture…nearly behind the palm!
Born January 20, 1872 in San Francisco to upper class parents who also encouraged her sister Emma to become a lawyer, the family eventually moved to the East Bay where Julia graduated from Oakland High in 1890– and was only woman in her class to enter the engineering department at UC Berkeley.
Her father, Charles Morgan, a mining engineer, had unsuccessfully sought his fortune in post-Goldrush San Francisco.
Fortunately, her mother’s family, the Parmelees, had made millions buying and selling cotton before the civil war and provided for the family comfortably.
Extremely reticent with people outside her family, Julia Morgan did everything she could to avoid the spotlight. When she applied to the architecture school, L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, she signed her name “J. Morgan.” Speculation is, she was accepted because the school thought she was a son of American financier, J.P. Morgan! When she arrived in France, it took nearly three years before she could pass additional entrance exams in French and do required calculations in metrics instead of pounds and inches.
The first woman in the world to gain her credentials in architecture at the all-male L’Ecole, she vied with her fellow students in the design studios where she and other fledgling architects completed their assignments. She returned to San Francisco, soon opened her own firm, and easily passed the state licensing exam.
She was only thirty-four when the quake struck in 1906, and suddenly, she had more business than she knew what to do with, including the commission to restore the Fairmont in ten months’ time, proving to the world that San Francisco would, indeed, rise from the ashes.
How she and the others partaking in the ferocious competition to get the city’s hotels rebuilt before the first anniversary of the quake in 1907 formed the core of the story of A Race to Splendor, published in April by Sourcebooks Landmark.
Julia Morgan once said rather tartly that she was not one of those (in her words) “talking architects” touting their grand accomplishments to the press.
Her view was that her buildings should speak for themselves. To underscore this notion, she sent many of her original drawings to the owners of the houses she’d built and then ordered whatever papers were left to be burned when she closed her office in 1951.
I had an amazing adventure researching and writing this tale of fierce rivalry, emotional recovery, and the amazing rebuilding of a devastated city and owe a great debt of gratitude to the historians and Morgan biographers who supplied much of what I learned about Julia Morgan’s role in getting the Fairmont back on its feet, 105 years ago this month.
I tell the story through the lens of a fictional composite character, Amelia Hunter Bradshaw, based on people who worked with and for Morgan during this pioneering woman’s rebuilding of an enduring landmark.
Please enjoy the novel and visit www.cijiware.com to learn more on this and the other five historicals I’ve written.