Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Overlooked No More: Julia Morgan, Pioneering Female Architect

Morgan in 1926 with William Randolph Hearst. Marc Wanamaker/Bison Archives.

Through fire and shock, the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 destroyed more than 80 percent of the city’s buildings. The grand Fairmont Hotel, only days from opening, was gutted by flames, leaving only a shell.

The hotel’s owners, determined to rebuild, turned to a young architect, Julia Morgan. Only three years earlier she had built a bell tower on the campus of Mills College, and it had withstood the earthquake unscathed — proof that Morgan was as experienced in reinforced concrete as she was in European design.

But word that a woman had been hired to renovate the luxurious hotel was met with astonishment. Was the building really in the charge of a woman?, Jane Armstrong, a reporter for The San Francisco Call, asked the project’s foreman in 1907 on a visit to the hotel’s ballroom after Morgan had restored it to its original splendor.

Yes, the foreman answered, it was in the charge of “a real architect, and her name happens to be Julia Morgan, but it might as well be John Morgan.’ ”