Love Hearst Castle? Thank trailblazing architect Julia Morgan

Written by Crissy Van Meter, produced by Sarah Sweeney

An aerial view shows the estate W.R. Hearst christened La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill), the site of Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Credit: Chronicle Books.

Hearst Castle is a sprawling estate that sits on top of a hill overlooking the ocean in San Simeon, Calif. The mansion boasts 110,000 square feet and is made up of five buildings. There’s an indoor swimming pool, massive outdoor swimming pools, and landscaped gardens. The property has ranch facilities and an estate for employees who maintain the duck ponds, zebras, lions, llamas, and more. Altogether, the property is about 120 acres. 

When author Victoria Kastner first visited Hearst Castle, she was surprised to find that California's most famous estate was designed by a woman whom most people had never heard of: architect Julia Morgan. 

In her book, “Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect,” Kastner reveals more about Morgan’s life and career through interviews, letters, and Morgan's personal diaries. She found that Morgan was unlike many women of the time. 

In the early 20th century, there weren’t many female architects, and most women didn’t work outside the home. 

Victoria Kastner is author of “Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect, by Victoria Kastner.” Credit: Chronicle Books. 

On carving a new path, Kastner says of Morgan, “It was quite remarkable, and especially when we consider that the female architects before her were either married to an architect, and then inherited the firm, or started in an office.”

Morgan was an architect with the best qualifications imaginable. She was the first woman to graduate from Paris' school of fine arts, École des Beaux-Arts in 1902. 

“She truly was a driven person and one of America's great architects,” Kastner says.

Born in 1872, Morgan grew up in an elegant suburb in Oakland. She attended Oakland High School and was good in science. She decided to study architecture at UC Berkeley, and Kastner speculates that it’s perhaps because her second cousin married famous New York architect Pierre Lebrun. 

Julia Morgan was 40 years old circa 1920. Credit: Chronicle Books.

When Morgan enrolled at Berkeley in 1890, there was no architecture program and she did her undergraduate work in civil engineering.   

“She was the only woman in civil engineering who ever used it professionally. A couple of women had taken the course, but no one else had made a career out of it, except for Julia Morgan.” Kastner says. 

At 30, Morgan was a professional architect, but at the turn of the century, it was uncommon to be an unwed career woman. After reviewing 800,000 words of Morgan’s correspondence and diaries, Kastner believes Morgan was focused solely on her career. 

“In looking at all of those words and … dozens of interviews with employees, fans, family, there's no indication of romantic relationships with anyone,” Kastner says.

The Roman Plunge at Hearst Castle, designed by architect Julia Morgan, features a 10-foot deep basin and is covered in mosaics of Venetian glass. Credit: Chronicle Books.

Creating her biggest masterpiece with William Randolph Hearst

Perhaps Morgan is most known for her work on Hearst Castle with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, whose philanthropist mother introduced him to her. For a decade, the two collaborated on many projects, and in 1919, when Morgan was 47, and Hearst was 56, they began what is now known as California’s most famous opulent estate. 

Hearst was an art collector who really loved architecture, and he trusted Morgan as a collaborator on what would become the biggest build of her career. 

“Maybe because [Hearst] had such a strong mother, he had women at the highest positions in most of his businesses. His top reporters were women, his best screenwriters were women. And so he didn't have issues with Morgan's authority,” Kastner says.

Hearst and Morgan would end up exchanging 2462 letters and telegrams about the San Simeon project. 

William Randolph Hearst and Julia Morgan are seen working at Hearst Castle. Credit: Chronicle Books.

“The wonderful thing about [their friendship] was how each of them, in this extraordinary collaboration, 28 years of building, [the project] brought out the best in each other,” Kastner says. “He deferred to her and respected and admired her. And she was able to build in the palatial scale that very few architects of the 20th century have ever been able to duplicate.”

Giving clients what they wanted  

Despite her friendship with Hearst, Morgan’s architectural achievements mostly went unnoticed by the public. Later, as many architects discovered her body of work that spanned 700 buildings, they wondered if she really had her own distinctive style. 

“It wasn't until the 1990s when architects started saying, ‘Wait a minute, why is it a bad thing if you design what the client actually wants you to build?’ If you hire Julia Morgan, she gave you the building you wanted.” Kastner says. 

In 2014, the American Institute of Architects posthumously awarded Morgan the Gold Medal, their highest honor. She’s still the only woman to receive the honor.  

“It was because she cared so much about the client, and she understood what architecture means. It’s safety, shelter, comfort, familiarity. It's so much more for all of us than merely four walls and a roof. And so she really believed … that whoever you were, you should be exalted by the surroundings. And so she honored everyone with her building.”

Morgan utilized her civil engineering skills to create buildings that could withstand earthquakes, most notably the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. She helped rebuild San Francisco’s iconic Fairmont Hotel after the quake. 

The Fairmont Hotel was re-engineered by Julia Morgan in 1907 after it was severely damaged in the 1906 earthquake. Credit: Chronicle Books.

In 2005, San Simeon was hit with a 6.5-magnitude earthquake and Hearst Castle was largely untouched. Kastner says that only a few statues tumbled over, and they had to repaint the bricks in one fireplace, and repair a couple of cracks in one of the swimming pools. She says that Morgan’s creations were built to last. 

“She had such an understanding of the technology of building and the processes of engineering. … It’s really true that of those 700 [buildings], many hundreds still survived, and they are in beautiful shape.”

Hearst Castle is now open to the public after a two-year closure for COVID and road damage. 



  • Victoria Kastner - historian and author of “Julie Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect”