Julia Morgan

How Julia Morgan finally won U.S. architecture's highest honor

Updated 8:03 am, Saturday, June 28, 2014

Nobody in the Bay Area who cares about architecture needs to be convinced of Julia Morgan's lasting worth. Her early 20th century buildings - public and private, large and small - enrich the texture of communities across the region.
But when it came time to make the case that a self-sufficient woman who died in 1957 deserved the most prestigious award in American architecture, her boosters left nothing to chance - which is why Morgan's grandniece on Saturday will receive the annual Gold Medal presented by the American Institute of Architects.
"They turned in the most complete and scholarly and persuasive nomination package I've ever seen," said Robert Ivy, the AIA's executive director. "Her lifetime's impact on the profession of architecture has been huge."
Morgan is only the eighth posthumous recipient of the Gold Medal, a distinction that puts her in the company of Thomas Jefferson. More startling, she is the first female architect selected for an honor first awarded in 1907.
Those elements combined to focus attention on the award when it was announced in December. Not all of the attention was favorable; skeptics raised the specter of tokenism, a way to break the males-only barrier with a woman whose best-known building, Hearst Castle, began construction in 1919.
Morgan's supporters from the start of their campaign saw something else - a uniquely well-rounded architect with a degree in engineering who designed more than 700 buildings, 21 of which are either National Historic Landmarks or are on the National Register of Historic Places.
The catalyst was Julia Donoho, an architect and attorney who is a regional director of the institute's California Council. She's also on the AIA board, and had been searching for the right woman to nominate for the Gold Medal since the boys' club nature of the award was the subject of a talk she attended several years ago.

Ideal candidate

In early 2013, she found the ideal candidate: Morgan, trained at UC Berkeley as an engineer before becoming the first woman to graduate from Paris' famed L'Ecole de Beaux Arts in 1901. Three years later she was the first woman to receive a California architectural license.
What counts 110 years later, Donoho said this week, is the quality of the work.
"Julia did so much of value, in so many different areas," Donoho said, referring to neighborhood churches and women's social buildings as well as private homes of lavish scale. "She has a compelling story."
The first meeting was held in March 2013 in the Berkeley office of Sandhya Sood, an architect who has studied Morgan as a pioneer of sustainable design and presented a paper on the topic at a 2012 statewide festival celebrating the architect. Different scholars volunteered to write about different aspects of Morgan's work, while Donoho and the other two regional directors of the AIA state council concentrated on lining up letters of support that might help sway the national board.
One of the five letters allowed came from Sen. Dianne Feinstein - who proclaimed Morgan to be "a true California gem" - and another came from Maria Shriver. The others were from an illustrious and deliberately varied trio of architects.

Revere history, new era

Michael Graves, who brought classically infused postmodernism to mainstream America in the 1980s, extolled Morgan for "showing us how to revere history and design for a new era." Frank Gehry, whose swirling titanium Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997 made postmodernism seem quaint, described Morgan as "expressing structure in new ways." Both are Gold Medal winners.
The fifth letter came from Denise Scott Brown, a hero to activists who feel that women haven't gotten a fair shake from the profession. She's the longtime professional partner of Robert Venturi, her husband, but when Venturi received the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1991, it went to him and him alone. Last year, 19,000 people signed a petition to extend the honor to Scott Brown as well.
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