Finally. More than 50 years after her death, the AIA announced last week that it was posthumously awarding California architect Julia Morgan the profession’s highest honor, its Gold Medal. Unbelievably she becomes the first woman to win the prize, which has been handed out for more than a century.
Morgan, who died in 1957, practiced for nearly 50 years, and designed more than 700 buildings (a pace of more than 18 structures a year) of widely varying types, including houses, churches, hotels, commercial buildings, and museums. The most famous was William Randolph Hearst’s Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, CA (1947), a rambling hillside estate built in the style of Renaissance Spain, with 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens overlooking the Pacific. But Morgan designed elegant and often poetic structures across California, making her mark as one of the state’s most important and talented practitioners.
“Julia Morgan gave the world an abundance of that most valuable gift creative genius can bestow—beauty,” wrote Mark Wilson in his book, Julia Morgan, Architect of Beauty.
Born in 1872, Morgan grew up in Oakland, and studied engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and (thanks in part to a recommendation from one of her professors, Bernard Maybeck) became the first woman to study architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
In 1904 she became the first woman licensed to practice architecture in California. Her Beaux-Arts education and relentless drive gave her the ability to design in a vast variety of styles, including Tudor, Georgian, Romanesque Revival, Spanish Colonial, and Moorish.
“She was an architect of remarkable breadth, depth, and consistency of exceptional work,” said California Senator Dianne Feinstein in her recommendation letter for Morgan’s nomination. Also involved with the nomination was renowned Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, who helped gather an extensive dossier on Morgan’s behalf. “Julia Morgan was a true superstar,” noted Gang.
“Many people know her as the architect of Hearst Castle, but there is so much more to Julia Morgan, and it is my hope that the Gold Medal opens the door to further scholarship,” Gang added.
Morgan’s most remarkable buildings are breathtaking for both their impact and their variety. They include the Herald Examiner Building (1915) in Los Angeles, an eclectic structure on Broadway combining Mission Revival and Romanesque forms with exceptional Moorish detailing; the Asilomar YWCA (1913) in Pacific Grove, CA, a rustic but intricately elegant collection of Arts and Crafts buildings that is now home to the Monterey Design Conference; and unusual work like her romantic, fairy tale-style collection of houses in Shashta County, CA known as Wyntoon (1924-1943).
Morgan’s career paved the way for female architects around the country. Until now the AIA has never handed a woman its Gold Medal. The prize has been awarded since 1907. It’s a devastating indictment of a profession that despite its progressive leanings has not appropriately welcomed women into its leading ranks. Some have wondered aloud whether Morgan’s nomination is an implicit response to Denise Scott-Brown’s controversial shutout with the Pritzker Prize. In fact Scott Brown wrote a letter of recommendation on Morgan’s behalf for the award: “Including her now will help the profession diversify its offerings to include greater richness and creativity of expression,” Brown wrote.
Julia Donoho, the AIA board member who nominated Morgan, told Architect that she nominated Morgan because she felt that the organization needed to go back and recognize Gold Medal quality women who “were overlooked.” It should be noted that the incoming President of the AIA, Helene Combs Dreiling, is a woman.
One thing is clear despite any controversy: Morgan’s body of work and pioneering legacy make her deserving, even a half century after her death. In his book Wilson refutes criticism from earlier naysayers, particularly those of the early modernists who rose during her career, calling her work “derivative” and unserious: “Her legacy speaks clearly to anyone who takes the time to appreciate it: in the subtle beauty of her carefully crafted stairways; in the warm and intimate quality of her thoroughly livable interiors; in the pleasing refinement of every detail on her exteriors; and in the graceful strength of the structural elements of her largest buildings.”
In a bittersweet twist, the AIA awarded its other major honor—its Firm of the Year Award—to New Orleans architects Eskew + Dumez + Ripple in the same week that one of its founders, Allen Eskew, passed away. The New Orleans-based firm is known for using a rigorous Modernist aesthetic combined with a vernacular sensitivity to reinvent their home city and other urban locations. Their projects are a mainstay at local and national awards, ranging from the renovation of the New Orleans Superdome to the Louisiana State History Museum in New Orleans, to Reinventing the Crescent, and exhaustive plan to redevelop much of the city’s battered waterfront. The cause of Eskew’s death was undetermined at press time. “Allen was tremendously proud of this nomination. We are grateful that we can reflect on what we have been able to accomplish,” noted Eskew’s business partner, Steven Dumez.
Both Eskew + Dumez + Ripple and Morgan will be honored at the 2014 AIA National Convention in Chicago.