Architect Julia Morgan’s Marin Masterpieces

JULIA MORGAN, AMERICA’S first truly independent female architect, is most famous for designing the spectacular Hearst Castle, at San Simeon. Many fans of her work are also aware that she designed all the original buildings at Asilomar in Pacific Grove. And some people know that Morgan holds the record for total completed structures designed by a single American architect, with nearly 750 — 200 more than Frank Lloyd Wright. But few people know that Morgan designed some of her best buildings here in Marin County. These include the Sausalito Woman’s Club, an exquisite Craftsman bungalow in San Anselmo, an Italian Renaissance–style mansion in Belvedere, and two residences on the grounds of the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo. Now that the American Institute of Architects finally awarded Julia Morgan her long-overdue Gold Medal in 2014, her work in Marin takes on even greater importance, both to historians and lovers of beauty.

According to office records provided by Julia Morgan’s goddaughter Lynn McMurray, the architect designed a total of 14 buildings in Marin between 1908 and 1932 (McMurray’s mother was Morgan’s office manager for 35 years). Among Morgan’s work in Marin, besides the five buildings mentioned above, are two houses in San Rafael, two residences and a retaining wall (for a Hearst mansion that was never built) in Sausalito, another home in Belvedere, and a Presbyterian orphanage in San Anselmo. Here’s a look at five classic structures you can only find in Marin.

Bertha Newell House

Julia Morgan’s career began when she returned to the Bay Area in 1902, after earning her master’s degree in architecture at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris; she was the first woman ever to attend that institution. She worked for nearly two years out of her parents’ home in Oakland, serving on the design staff of John Galen Howard, architect of the master plan for the University of California, Berkeley campus; she did many of the working drawings on his plans for the Greek Theatre and Hearst Mining Building. Morgan also designed a number of her own commissions during this transition period, including several spec houses in Berkeley and Oakland. When she found out Howard was paying her less than any of the men on staff (“because she is a woman,” he was heard to say), she left and opened her own office in San Francisco in April 1904 — becoming the first American woman to have a full-time architecture practice without a male partner. She began looking for new clients throughout the Bay Area, including the rapidly growing communities of Marin.

Her first Marin commission was in the verdant village of San Anselmo, nestled at the base of the Coast Ranges in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais. Secluded at the end of a quiet, leafy lane at 15 Prospect Street is the Bertha Newell House, one of Morgan’s earliest custom-designed residences. Designed in 1907 and completed in 1908, it is a masterpiece in the Craftsman bungalow mode. The one-and-a-half-story home is set well back from the street, atop a hill at the rear of a large, tree-shaded lot. The facade is sheathed in redwood clapboards, and the wide overhanging eaves, low-angled gables and deeply recessed corner porch with its klinker brick facing are all classic Craftsman details.

The interior of the Newell House remains almost exactly as Morgan designed it. Just inside the front door, a wonderfully light and airy enclosed porch features big latticed windows, built-in window seats and a high, peaked open-beamed ceiling. To the left of the porch, a spacious living room flows into a long dining room at the west end of the house. In the living room are a large klinker brick fireplace, with brick facing that runs up to the ceiling; hardwood floors; and box beams on the ceiling. The dining room has board-and-batten wall paneling, floor-to-ceiling windows, a box-beam ceiling as in the living room and, along the north wall, built-in bookshelves with cabinets below to create an inviting library nook. The overall ambience is one of warmth, light, and elegance, qualities that mark all of Morgan’s domestic designs.

Faculty Buildings

Faculty buildings by Julia Morgan

Faculty house. Photo by Monica Lee.

The San Francisco Theological Seminary occupies a beautiful, sylvan 14-acre site on a hillside in San Anselmo at the eastern edge of town. The Presbyterian school, founded in 1871, moved to its current site at 105 Seminary Road in 1890. Julia Morgan designed two residences on the campus in 1920, completing both in 1921. The more impressive is the President’s House at 47 Seminary Road. For this three-story brown shingled residence Morgan skillfully blended the Prairie and Arts and Crafts styles. The main facade presents a long horizontal mass, with a low-angled roofline and minimal ornamentation, all typical Prairie features. The third story has latticed casement windows at either end; in the center, a large overhanging entry pavilion is supported by massive beveled brackets and has a wide set-in Palladian window, with an arched central section and two rectangular sidelights. And on the second story, square-latticed sidelights flank the picture windows. These features were typical of Arts and Crafts homes.

The two-story Faculty House, at 118 Bolinas Avenue, is a more straightforward example of the Prairie style, rendered in brown shingled sheathing. Its horizontal massing, lowangled roofline and sweeping horizontal lines along the facade would all be at home on Chicago’s South Side, birthplace of the Prairie style. Yet the building also boasts some of Morgan’s signature Arts and Crafts touches: a half-timbered trim around the recessed entry porch and an overhanging central pavilion lined with a wooden flower box.

The Casino

In tony Belvedere just south of Tiburon, Julia Morgan designed an impressive Italian Renaissance–style mansion for Gordon Blanding in 1913. The substantial two-story home at 450 Belvedere Road is part of an estate that also includes a house by San Francisco architect Willis Polk. The Blanding mansion, nicknamed “the Casino” for its resemblance to a European gambling house, has three dormer windows set into a low-hipped roof, round arched windows on the first floor, a delicate wrought-iron balcony across the facade and a deeply recessed loggia in the center of the second story. Morgan sited the home to face the San Francisco Bay to take full advantage of the superb panoramas and views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Sausalito Woman’s Club

The crowning jewel of Julia Morgan’s work in Marin, the Sausalito Woman’s Club sits atop a steep lot overlooking San Francisco Bay at 120 Central Avenue, in the hills above the old downtown. The views of the bay and the San Francisco skyline are breathtaking. On a clear sunny day, with the blue water below and the lush Mediterranean hillsides all around, the setting resembles picture-postcard villages on the Italian coast. The Woman’s Club still functions the way Morgan designed it (for a fee of $280; the construction cost $5727.50), with only modest upgrades and two small additions since it opened in 1918. Morgan created a masterpiece of site-sensitive First Bay Tradition architecture, a uniquely Bay Area style noted for its emphasis on craftsmanship, natural materials and environmentally sensitive design.

Sausalito Women's Club

Photo by Tim Porter.

Morgan, who designed more than two dozen women’s clubs and YWCAs across the western United States between 1913 and 1929, had a national reputation for such work by the time the Sausalito Woman’s Club was formed. Nevertheless, the group first conducted a thorough study of seven other women’s club buildings in the Bay Area and considered hiring San Francisco architect William Faville before settling on her. Morgan was working on the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove for Phoebe Hearst at the time, as well as a massive foundation for a Hearst residence above the Sausalito waterfront (the house was never built, but the foundation is still there).

The clubhouse is constructed of redwood, with floor- to- ceiling windows along the east and west sides for unobstructed views of the bay and hills. The facade incorporates several balconies to further capitalize on the natural setting and create an indoor-outdoor effect. The exterior is sheathed in redwood shingles, integrating the building aesthetically with its surroundings. In 1923 Morgan also designed a second-story boardroom, with panoramic views on all four sides.

The clubhouse interior has a warm, welcoming ambience, with an auditorium that seats up to 300 — a light and open space with hardwood floors, board-and-batten redwood paneled walls, and an open-beamed peaked ceiling with massive wooden trusses along the east and west ends. The raised stage is at the north end; off the south end, an entry hall with a redwood staircase leads to the boardroom. A kitchen was built on the southwest corner in 2006. Seismic upgrades were made in 1994 and all the lighting was updated, with some of the old fixtures re-created to look like the originals.

In 1979, the Sausalito Woman’s Club became the first historic city landmark in Sausalito, and in 1993 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places — fitting tributes for an architectural gem designed for a group of independent women by America’s first independent female architect.

LEARN MORE Mark Anthony Wilson, a Berkeley architectural historian, has been writing and teaching about American architecture for more than 35 years. His 2011 book Julia Morgan: Architect of Beauty (Gibbs Smith, $30 softcover, 213 pages) was the first comprehensive book on the trailblazing architect written in 20 years.


This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Morgan’s Masterpieces.”