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An Art That Speaks for Itself by a Woman of Few Words

Sam Hall Kaplan

November 21, 1987|Sam Hall Kaplan

On display through Nov. 30 at the Pasadena Public Library is a modest photography exhibit of select buildings Julia Morgan designed for women's organizations in Southern California. While perhaps best known as the persevering architect who gave shape to the indulgent fancy of William Randolph Hearst for a castle at San Simeon on the California coast, Morgan, in a distinguished career, designed about 700 other projects.

Making that number even more impressive is the fact that when she was working, from about the turn of the century to her death in 1957, architecture was very much a male profession. (To some extent, it still is, as evidenced by the fact that while 30% of today's architecture students are woman, only 7% are registered practitioners.) Morgan arguably was America's greatest woman architect, certainly one of its most prolific pioneers. She was born in 1872 and, according to histories of her life, the first woman to graduate with a civil engineering degree from UC Berkeley, and, in 1898, the first woman to gain admission to study architecture at the famed Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. At the school she garnered various coveted medals and awards.

While the exhibit (sponsored by Pasadena Heritage and UCLA's Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the library at 285 E. Walnut St. in the Pasadena Civic Center) is interesting, if sparse, more engaging--at least to me--are the buildings she designed.

As art and architecture historian Sara Boutelle, a leading authority on Morgan, has written, she "was a woman, who, with a minimum of fanfare, collected many firsts during her 85 years and left three-dimensional evidence of her innovative ideas for all of us to see. She wrote no apologia, asserting that architecture was a visual, not verbal, art." How refreshing in these days of architecture hype.

Just a few blocks southwest of the library, at 78 N. Marengo Ave., is one of the many facilities Morgan designed over the years for the YWCA. It is a city landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of Pasadena's Civic Center district. (Also part of the district and a delight to tour is the library itself, a rich Spanish Renaissance-style structure designed by Myron Hunt and H. C. Chambers in 1927.)

While the facade of the YWCA structure, built in 1921, is faded and not enhanced by a south wing added in 1972, the symmetry, ridge line, tiled roof and arched doorways of the original building hint of Morgan's command of the then-popular Mission Revival style. More impressive is the interior of the building, which at present houses, among other things, a thrift shop and offices of the Y and other service organizations and is open to the public at various times. Despite poor lighting and alterations, one can see Morgan's concern for the organization of space and detail, particularly in what had been the women's residential lounges on the second floor.

The detail that I feel most distinguishes the complex as a design by Morgan are the magnificent trusses supporting the gymnasium roof, which reminded me very much of ones she designed for structures at the Asilomar State Conference Center in Pacific Grove and for the Hearst Castle. One fervently hopes in the current discussions concerning refurbishing and expanding the Pasadena Y that the gym and swimming pool will be preserved.

A much more exuberant and, I feel, accomplished design by Morgan is the Los Angeles Examiner Building at 1111 S. Broadway. Built in 1915 in a modified Mission Revival style, the blocklong structure is marked by colorful domes at each corner and a mid-block entry decorated with a quatrefoil window set in the sinuous facade between two bell towers and topped by a domed tower with an arcaded loggia. It is a rich concoction, marvelously detailed and worth a detour.

As Boutelle has indicated, Morgan believed her buildings expressed themselves in their use and did not need explanations, presumably by critics and academics.

"My buildings speak, I do not speak," she has been quoted as saying. I would amend that to say that some of Morgan's designs not only speak, but as in the case of the Examiner Building, they also can sing.

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