SELLING OFF PIECES OF JULIA MORGAN
It can be said her sustainable, reinforced concrete structures, including Hearst Castle and the Berkley City Club , do indeed speak volumes to many of us about Julia Morgan's classical training and sensibilities. This, and of course, her iconic blending as a leader of the First Bay Tradition which shaped the Arts and Crafts movement and eventually the modernist approach to design.
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Yet noise emanating from the harmony of her lines might not be enough to getting Julia. Scrutinizing her notations and elevations to better understand her process and vocabulary is thrilling for some of her followers.
There exists an almost cultist fascination with the prolific Morgan's career of crafting more than 700 light-filled homes, churches, retreats, YWCA's and other structures from 1904 to 1951, and private collectors are still clamoring to get their hands on her deftly drafted plans.
Rumors of the death of those plans have been greatly exaggerated as proven by the $20,000 sale of a collection auctioned by Bonham's in New York.
The lot, included in the Voices of the 20th Century sale in December, included 90 original architectural drawings, five silver print photos with original pencil design overlays, 90 blueprints and whiteprints and thirty-one period copies. Many of the plans included Morgan's autographed notes and meticulously itemized instructions for the design of Hearst Castle, where she supervised the work from soup to nuts and bolts from 1919 to 1942.
When I once asked a castle tour guide what Morgan did, he responded, "she did everything!" In other words, it was Hearst's money and her castle in terms of ordering the grand facades, interiors, landscapes and execution. He had an eye for art. She was a genius who engineered the plan to make it work.
According to Adam Stackhouse, Bonham's Senior Specialist of Fine Works and Manuscripts, the Morgan drawings that sold came from a private consignor who had inherited them.
"The person they had inherited them from had purchased them from the estate when they were selling material after William Randolph Hearst died," he explained.
He said he wasn't allowed to reveal the name of the buyer in the premium sale. But a couple of weeks prior to the event, I was alerted to the auction by an elderly San Francisco architect who boasted after a few drinks that he had the largest private collection of Julia Morgan drawings in the world. Later, he called me and reneged, apologizing that he drinks too much and actually only owns a few of the original drawings.
The architect's firm had partnered with Frank Lloyd Wright and other modernists on California projects over the years, and rumor has it the principles inherited a large number of architectural plans, including those of the Hearst family. Morgan did several projects for Hearst and his mother, and when the architect closed her office, she offered spare plans to clients who wanted them. She didn't burn them as myth has it.
The bulk of her papers were donated by her heirs in 1980 to the Kennedy Library at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Others are stored at the Bancroft Library and the College of Environmental Design Library at the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated in 1894 as one of the first female civil engineering students.
It seems appropriate that these historic documents are safely deposited at institutions where students and researchers can learn from Morgan's eclectic adaptation of the Ecole des Beaux Arts teaching of blending and the arts and crafts approach to the simple home.
Still, for private collectors, getting one's hands on Morgan's papers seems akin to touching the elusive visionary who circumvented obstructionists at every turn to morph over time into a sort of paragon of determination to nerdy women in science and tech everywhere - who still face biases in the workplace. Morgan demonstrated with both her superior education and sustainable elevations that smart women who work hard can and do measure up.
So what happens to these records of architectural history when landing in private hands?
I had hoped to bid on the lot, myself, to insure the documents are shared with the public.
I'm a board member of the Berkeley City Club Conservancy which is charged with maintaining the club and preserving her legacy, and currently co-writing a play about Morgan's remarkable journey. I would have used them to even explore a Julia Morgan architecture and design museum in San Francisco. The drawings are a window into her process as well as her artistic soul. I suppose you could even call them "art." But it's hard to compete with a $20,000 bid for the said art, which Bonham appraised at $6,000-$8,000 in value.
Either way, I'm glad we can inspect them virtually until perhaps they are donated to a public institution to serve a higher cause. It all begs the question, should private collectors own pieces of Morgan? I believe who ever decided to unload this collection knows the answer.