Born 1872 – San Francisco, CA Died 1957 – San Francisco, CA
Architect of the North Star House
Julia Morgan (1872-1957) is America’s most decorated woman architect. She was one of the first women to graduate with a degree in Civil Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley (1894); the first woman to be accepted to and earn a degree in architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts (1902), then the most prestigious architecture program in the world; the first licensed woman architect in the state of California (1904); a recipient of the University of California’s highest honor, an honorary Doctor of Laws degree (1929); named one of the most influential women in the state of California by the Women’s Board of the Golden Gate International Exposition (1940); and the first woman to be awarded the AIA Gold Medal (2014), the most prestigious honor of the American Institute of Architects.
In 1904, Julia Morgan secured her first significant commission to design a multi-use building. Although exactly how Morgan received the commission to design North Star House remains unclear, her directive does not: James D. Hague, principal owner of the North Star gold mine in Grass Valley, California, wanted to build a mansion of architectural distinction that served two purposes – impressive space to host social and business events for wealthy investors and local leaders as well as a residence for the family of his Superintendent Arthur de Wint Foote. Morgan had a meager budget of under $23,000.
Morgan’s exceptional ability to integrate two opposing design elements – large groups vs. family — is evident in her seamless design. These are spatial attributes that few architects develop even with years of experience. Morgan’s design began with the room proportions that would work for both large group and family usage. Then she had to integrate traffic patterns with seating patterns for both large and small groups in the same room. The seating patterns included inglenooks for intimate conversations integrated with the free flow of group conversations.
There are understated design elements that deviated from handcrafted embellishments of other architects in Arts and Crafts movement. Morgan utilized large windows to frame the outside vistas which became even more dramatic with the absence of ornamentation. To conserve both money and floor space, a grand staircase was eliminated. In its place was a tucked-in smaller staircase behind the living room area that led upstairs to a hall and the bedrooms. The focus instead became on the house and then through the large windows to the views beyond.
What no one could have known at the time was the role that the North Star House would play in future events. In 2017, 1500 microfiche pages of YWCA minutes and reports from 1917 to 1919 became accessible, and researchers learned of Morgan’s role in designing and overseeing 124 Hostess Houses underwritten by the YWCA and requested by the U.S. War Department during WWI. The Houses were built at training camps nationwide, providing an inviting environment for men to say their farewells to the women in their lives. Morgan utilized the multi-functional concepts found in the North Star House as the prototype for the Hostess Houses – some of which served upwards of 1,700 people a day – as well as many of the design elements in the North Star House. Seventeen black commanders requested Hostess Houses; it was reported that under Morgan’s direction, those houses were identical to those being built for white servicemen. It was a bold move during a time of segregation and overt racism.
Click here to view a wonderful 7-1/2 minute video of Julia Morgan and her work.
This video was created to support the effort to have Miss Morgan awarded the annual Gold Medal from AIA (American Institute of Architects) in 2014 (awarded posthumously).