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Oakland YWCA building a symbol of Julia Morgan’s relationships with powerful women

Photo: Will Callan/Hoodline
By Will Callan - Published on February 27, 2019.

This story is the third in a four-part series on Oakland architect Julia Morgan, and the histories of four key buildings she designed. Check out our previous entries in the series, on the Mills College bell tower and the former King’s Daughters Home.

Like a granite boulder among sandstone, the former Oakland YWCA building  endures at the corner of Webster and 15th streets. Once a boarding house and educational center for young women, it now hosts dorm rooms for the California College of the Arts (CCA) on its top two floors. The bottom three are home to Envision Academy of Arts & Technology, a charter school.

But the original tiles, fixtures, faucets and gym-floor panels remain, a reminder of architect Julia Morgan's meticulous attention to durability and detail.

Morgan, a globally renowned architect who was fond of oyster stew and symmetry, completed the building in 1915. Its combination of styles (Medici palace on the outside, church on the inside) foreshadowed her work on Hearst Castle, the endlessly proliferating private residence of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst.

In fact, Morgan’s relationship with the YWCA, which would materialize in at least 30 buildings, was due to her connection to the Hearst family — in particular, its matriarch, Phoebe, widow to George and mother to William Randolph.

Formerly a space for young women, the YWCA building is now home to a charter high school and college dorms. | Photo: Will Callan/Hoodline

As generous — and eccentric — as her son, Phoebe Hearst directed much of her philanthropy toward UC Berkeley. According to Julia Donoho, an architect and lawyer who has studied Morgan extensively, that's where Phoebe may have first heard mention of Morgan, then a talented civil engineering student from Oakland.

Searching for a campus architect in the late 1890s, Hearst traveled to Paris with Morgan’s mentor, Bernard Maybeck. Her visit to the City of Light is the first confirmed record of Hearst meeting Morgan, who was applying for admission to study architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts.

Morgan had failed the school's notoriously challenging exam on her first pass, and been snubbed by the sexist admissions committee after her second. But Hearst, confident in the young engineer's abilities, offered to pay her tuition — even though Morgan, who came from a wealthy family, didn't necessarily need the money.

According to Donoho, Morgan turned Hearst down, saying she would only take the money if it would make her a better designer. The path to improvement, she believed, would be cut by hard work.

Phoebe Hearst (front row, third from right) with the Mothers' Congress in Washington, D.C. in 1897. | Photo: Library of Congress

Over the next decade, Morgan proved herself right. In 1898, she passed the exam on her fourth try, becoming the first woman to be admitted to the Beaux-Arts architecture school. She came in 13th place among 392 applicants.

After graduating from the school, she worked on a number of UC Berkeley landmarks in the office of John Galen Howard, including the Hearst Mining Building, raised in honor of Phoebe’s dead husband, George.

Morgan soon became famous for El Campanil, the belltower she designed at Mills College, which survived the catastrophic 1906 earthquake. Her client roster lengthened, and in 1912, she received another invitation from Hearst.

Bernard Maybeck, who designed the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, mentored Morgan while she was a student at Berkeley and encouraged her to attend the École des Beaux-Arts. | Photo: San Francisco Public Library

Hearst wanted Morgan to build a tent city at her Pleasanton Estate, Hacienda del Pozo de Veranda, to lodge 300 YWCA directors for their annual leadership conference. (The usual location, a hotel in Capitola, had recently burned down.)

According to Donoho, “Phoebe summoned the directors to her property in Pleasanton to have them meet Julia Morgan and assert her grandeur over them, and get things going” — that is, on the development at Asilomar, the Pacific Grove YWCA outpost that Morgan would design between 1913 and 1928.

“By the time she was finished with the King’s Daughters Home, in 1916, she was into the YWCA, and in major, almost constant affiliation with a range of women’s organizations,” said Karen McNeill, the former Kevin Starr postdoctoral fellow in California studies at the University of California.

According to Morgan's late biographer Sarah Holmes Boutelle, over 50 percent of Morgan’s client roster eventually consisted of either women’s institutions or individual women who had commissioned private homes.

Her role in designing the Oakland YWCA involved another discerning woman: its director, Grace Fisher, who knew Morgan through their mutual sorority at UC Berkeley, Kappa Alpha Theta.

According to Walter Steilberg, one of Morgan's protégés, Morgan "never spared herself when it was the question of quality to be decided." | Photo: Will Callan/Hoodline

The building remained the property of the Oakland YWCA for decades, and in May 1977, it was designated as an Oakland landmark. In 1984, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

But the cost of keeping up the building weighed heavily on the declining YWCA, especially after it was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. 

In 1993, LCA Architects joined forces with FEMA and the State Historic Preservation Office to seismically retrofit the building. According to LCA CEO Carl Campos, they removed and reinstalled the original fixtures, and reconstructed the stage and theater, which were damaged beyond salvage.

“It was a fairly aggressive project, because we took up all the individual hardwood floor boards and numbered each one [to be put back in place]," said Campos. “It was a lot of fun to do." 

Eventually, the cost of maintaining the building became too much for the Oakland YWCA to bear. In 2000, it sold the top two floors to CCA for $1.3 million, and by 2005, it had dissolved entirely, transferring its remaining assets to the Berkeley YWCA chapter. The lower three floors were sold in 2007.

Today, the building serves as a reminder of downtown Oakland's glorious past, and a sentinel amid its ongoing revival. 

"When the building was built, downtown Oakland was one of most lively, culturally diverse, successful urban centers in California," architecture historian Mark Wilson told the Chronicle when it was sold in 2007.

"This building should be seen as an absolute treasure, and an irreplaceable asset in the process of bringing downtown Oakland back to the level of life it once had."

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