Julia Morgan’s Legacy in Marin County: How Her Ground-Breaking and Environmentally Sensitive Approach to Design Still Inspires Architects Today

One hundred and fifty years ago, famed Bay Area architect Julia Morgan was born in 1872. America’s first independent, licensed woman architect, Morgan left a significant legacy in Marin County, including several buildings that are still serving the purposes she designed them for over a century ago. Her most famous project, the spectacular Hearst Castle built for William Randolph Hearst, draws more than 750,000 visitors each year (it recently re-opened after a two-year closure), who marvel at the property’s grand rooms and iconic Neptune and Roman pools. Morgan has left not only a tangible legacy in Marin County and beyond, but has also influenced the work of many present-day architects.

A Ground-Breaking Career

Julia Morgan Sausalito Womens Club
The Sausalito Woman’s Club, designed by Morgan.

Morgan was incredibly prolific during her notable career: She completed more than 750 commissions — nearly 200 more than Frank Lloyd Wright. Elizabeth Doermann has been teaching students at the College of Marin about Morgan’s accomplishments in her architectural history classes for 15 years. “She showed tenacity in obtaining education, including her success at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and a similar tenacity in procuring work back in California,” Doermann says. “She was in command of design elements — space, light, massing, proportion and exquisite detail — and her comfort and willingness to experiment with so many styles came together as her own style.”

A Legacy That Lives On

Casa Grande Gothic Study at Hearst Castle. Photo by Joel Puliatti.

Morgan’s work is an inspiration to a number of Marin’s most successful architects, some of whom have incorporated the environmentally sensitive design principles of the First Bay Tradition, a Bay Area offshoot of the Arts-and-Crafts Movement, of which Julia Morgan was a leading practitioner. “[Julia] understood materials and engineering beyond her contemporaries while creating some of the most graceful, beautifully composed works of the time,” says Ani Wade, who founded Wade Design Architects in San Anselmo in 2007 with her husband, Luke. ““Her work was included as part of our study of the regional style that emerged in the Bay Area, and she was regarded as a trailblazer for women in her profession.”

Wade Design Architects recently finished a complete renovation of an historic Morgan-designed house in Berkeley. “The interior walls were all 2-foot-thick concrete, robust and resistant to change, so we have a newfound appreciation for the longevity of what she accomplished,” Wade says.  

One of Wade’s favorite Morgan-designed buildings is the Sausalito Woman’s Club. “[It] has such a perfectly scaled ballroom (auditorium) space,” she says.

Embracing Indoor-Outdoor Design

This San Geronimo home is the work of Wade Design Architects, who took inspiration from Morgan’s emphasis on indoor-outdoor design.

Designed by Morgan in 1916 and dedicated in 1918, the Sausalito Woman’s Club reflects the
architect’s indoor-outdoor approach to design. The clubhouse, one of Morgan’s most impressively sited
public buildings, is perched atop a steep hillside, providing breathtaking views of the bay and San Francisco skyline. The building is constructed entirely of red-wood, with floor-to-ceiling windows along the east and west sides to allow these unobstructed views. Morgan used several balconies to take further advantage of the beauty of the natural setting by creating an indoor- outdoor effect. The club’s integration with its site is enhanced by the use of redwood shingles on its exterior, as well as the open-beamed ceiling in the 300-seat auditorium, which creates a warm, welcoming ambience for visitors.

The Sausalito Woman’s Club, designed by Morgan in 1916

To this day, the building is still fulfilling its original mission. “Julia’s vision was to create a space for free-thinking women to gather and support each other, because she knew we could accomplish so much more together,” says Arliss Willis, a former chair of the Sausalito Woman’s Club Preservation Society. “This building has helped us maintain our mission of outreach to the community, and it has allowed us to continue to be involved in meeting our community’s needs. It’s kept us together as a group for over a century.”

Morgan’s emphasis on indoor-outdoor design has inspired many later architects, including Wade. “As designers, we’re focused on indoor-outdoor connections and creating buildings that encourage spending time in the surrounding landscape, opening up homes to fresh air, sunlight and an awareness of the natural world,” Wade says. “A home we designed in San Geronimo embraces the outdoors and has that sense of airiness that you can find in lots of her work.”

Designing With Nature in Mind

Wagstaff Rogers Architects
A recent Morgan-inspired project by Wagstaff + Rogers Architects. Photo by Stuart Lirette/Wagstaff + Rogers.

A few miles north of the Sausalito Woman’s Club, in San Anselmo, three more examples of Julia Morgan’s display her nature-based design philosophy. These residences apply the environmentally sensitive features of the First Bay Tradition, of which she was a leading practitioner. The Bertha Newall House at 15 Prospect Avenue is a Craftsman jewel designed in 1907 that retains most of its original features. The one-and-a-half story bungalow is set well back from the street atop a hilly, tree-shaded lot. The exterior is sheathed in clapboards, with wide overhanging eaves, low-angled gables and a deeply recessed corner porch. The interior includes an enclosed sun porch with walls of latticed windows allowing full views of the sylvan setting, and a living and dining room with an open beamed ceiling and a wide klinker brick fireplace.

Julia Morgan Bertha Newall
The Bertha Newall House in San Anselmo, designed by Morgan in 1907. Photo by Joel Puliatti.

Ellin and Ned Purdom are only the second owners of the Newall House, and they’ve made few changes since they purchased the home in 1999. “My parents bought the property in 1967 from the Newalls, and Ellin and I bought the home from my mother’s estate,” Ned says. “Except for bathroom and kitchen remodels and updating electrical service, the current floorplan and architectural detail is true to Julia Morgan’s original design. Ours is an incredibly livable home. There isn’t a room in the house that isn’t comfortable — and a joy to look out from, whether for the views, or the way the light fills the spaces.”

Morgan designed the President’s House in San Anselmo in 1921. Photo by Joel Puliatti.

 Also displaying Morgan’s nature-based approach to design are two brown-shingled  residences Morgan designed in 1921, now owned by the San Francisco Theological Seminary, which merged with Redland University in 2019. The President’s House at 47 Seminary Road is a three-story home that skillfully blends the woodsy First Bay Tradition with Prairie-style features such as horizontal massing, a low-angled roofline and minimal use of ornamentation, (the wide deck and stairs were added later). The Palladian-style window in the center of the third story overhanging bay is the type of historic motif often incorporated into First Bay Tradition buildings. Across the road at 118 Bolinas Avenue stands the Dean’s House, originally designed as faculty housing. It displays a similar blend of First Bay Tradition features, such as brown-shingle siding and exposed roof beams, with Prairie-style horizontal massing. The flower box lining the bottom of the second-story bay window is a favorite feature of Morgan’s residential designs.

Julia Morgan Berkeley
The Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley, designed by Morgan in 1908 as St. John’s Prebysterian Church. Photo by Joel Puliatti.

Morgan’s reverence for nature-based design has strongly influenced Eric Rogers, the principal architect since 2014 at Mill Valley-based architecture firm Wagstaff and Rogers, which has been in business since 1987. His firm recently completed a restoration of a home on Hampton Road in Piedmont that Julia Morgan designed in 1938. Rogers became acquainted with Morgan’s work during an internship that brought him to San Francisco in 2000. “I ended up subletting for the summer in Berkeley, and I was drawn to the small church Morgan designed there called St. John’s Presbyterian Church, now called the Julia Morgan Theater,” Rogers says. “I try to practice nature-based design as much as possible by using natural materials, natural lighting and ventilation, and landscape design to create a healthier and more creative environment for habitation. The Arts-and-Crafts/Craftsman style has heavily influenced most of the residential projects we’ve done in Marin.”        

A walk past any of Julia Morgan’s Marin County buildings provides ample evidence of why she has in recent years come to be considered one America’s most important architects. Their variety, esthetically pleasing proportions, use of sustainable and natural materials, and environmentally sensitive siting show her exceptional command of all the aspects of design that mark a truly great architect. Today, 150 years after her birth, we can all be grateful for the unique legacy of beauty she has left us.

Mark Anthony Wilson

Mark Anthony Wilson is an author and historian who has had five books published on West Coast architecture. He teaches art history at Santa Rosa Junior College.