The Story of Miss Morgan

Photo courtesy Arch Daily

Photo courtesy Arch Daily

Julia Morgan was more than an architect. She was a trailblazer who broke the glass ceiling of her profession. As the first certified female architect in California, she designed more than 700 buildings throughout her 47-year career, including YWCA Oahu’s own Laniākea headquarters.

In honor of Women’s History Month and Laniākea’s 90th anniversary, this month’s e-newsletter will provide an intimate look at Julia Morgan’s life and her ties to the YWCA.


Julia Morgan grew up with four siblings in a rather progressive family. At a time when young women were grooming themselves for suitable husbands, Julia was deciding her major at UC Berkeley. Her mother had always encouraged her to pursue an education, which clashed with societal expectations in the 1890s. She also received encouragement from her cousin’s architect husband to explore the male-dominated industry. At the time, the university didn’t offer classes in architecture, so Julia received a degree in the next closest subject—engineering.


Ecole des Beaux-Arts had never accepted a woman into its architecture program, but Julia didn’t let that stop her. After graduating from Berkeley she traveled to France to immerse herself in the language. She placed 42nd in her first exam as she struggled to convert measurements to the metric system, which she never used before moving to Paris. Her second attempt was discouraged by examiners, who arbitrarily lowered her scores so she missed the cut (Ecole only accepted the top 30 applicants). It was impossible for the judges to ignore Julia’s score on her third attempt, which earned her 13th place. 

At the age of 26, Julia Morgan was the first woman to be accepted into the premier architectural design school in the world. Three years later, she was the first woman to graduate and receive a certificate in architecture from Ecole des Beaux-Arts.


Shortly after graduating, Julia returned to Oakland and set up her own office in her parents’ former carriage house. She found a job working for the head of the new School of Architecture at UC Berkeley, John Galen Howard. She thrived as a draftsman and supervised construction of the Hearst Greek Theater and the Hearst Memorial Mining Building, both of which remain on campus today.

Despite positive reviews of her work, Julia experienced sexism at her workplace. She caught wind of Howard raving about her at a faculty event, at which he stated, “The best thing about this person is, I pay her almost nothing, as it is a woman!” Determined to make her own mark on her own terms, Julia opened an office in San Francisco in 1904. She was the first woman to be certified as a professional architect in California and the first woman in the United States to be certified with a full-time independent practice.


These words are inscribed on a cornerstone of the Oakland YWCA Building, designed by Julia in 1913. As young women moved from small towns to major cities, and as more women immigrated to America looking for a better life in the 1920s, boarding houses and safe apartments were desperately needed.

As a result, YWCAs popped up across the nation to offer these women a safe place to live, as well as recreational and educational activities. Julia designed 16 YWCAs in California, and also commissioned chapters in Utah, Arizona, Japan, and two in Hawai‘i (she designed the original Fernhurst building on the corner of King and Alapai streets). 

One of her favorite projects was Laniākea, designed in 1925 with “elements from both Moorish Spain and Renaissance Italy within a refined, three-story neoclassic facade. The front door is made of rich teakwood, beautifully decorated with carved flowers native to Hawaii.” The building opened in 1927 and remains the only YWCA designed by Julia that is still used for its original purpose. The facility has been recognized on both the state and national historic registers, but the cost to maintain this aging building remains steep, and the organization relies upon community support for its upkeep. Please consider a tax-deductible gift to support the preservation of Julia Morgan’s vision.


●     Julia Morgan’s office was completely destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. She opened her second office the following year in the Merchants Exchange Building, which she helped remodel.

●     She designed an average of 18 buildings per year and worked 18 hours a day during most of her career. Julia wasn’t known to eat many meals, sustaining herself on coffee and candy bars.

●     With her background in engineering, Julia Morgan was one of the best structural engineers on the West Coast in her time. She helped rebuild the Fairmont in San Francisco with reinforced concrete after the earthquake.

●     She worked very closely with news mogul William Randolph Hearst in creating the world-famous Hearst Castle, which features 165 rooms and 127 acres of garden.

●     In 2014, Julia Morgan became the first woman to receive a posthumous Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects.

*Excerpts taken from “Julia Morgan: Architect of Beauty” by Mark Anthony Wilson.