Page C1.1 . 26 March 2003                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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Julia Morgan in Chinatown

by Jill Jackson

In 1932, architect Julia Morgan saw the opening of her YWCA building in Chinatown, San Francisco. Over 70 years later, actress Jill Jackson portrays the architect in a one-woman show, hosted by the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum and Learning Center, which now occupies the building. An excerpt shows how the play dramatizes Morgan's ideas. — Editor

"I've designed nearly 15 buildings for the Young Women's Christian Association — here in the city there is this one, the Japanese YWCA on Sutter Street, and the Residence Hall on Powell. I'm very proud to support this institute. It offers girls and young women in the cities a safe place to board, learn skills, recreate, and get acquainted with other professionals.

"I started the design of your building two years ago in 1930 and we have just completed it. It's made primarily from stucco and half-timber, a popular combination this past decade with clients. Brick has also been favored because of its impressive appearance, but I must say, you and other clients are taking a risk with the brick's instability in an earthquake.

"I hope you're pleased with the outcome of the structure. I'm quite fond of the gymnasium, with its vaulted roof, and of the interior garden, which I hope will become a quiet place for reflection.

"When I sit down at the drawing board to work on a building, the interior is designed first. Every room should be the proper size and relate correctly to other rooms. I look for simple, clear arrangements of rooms. A small space may be informal, but it should have a purpose! I like to give the illusion of space with ceiling designs. I consider how the room will be furnished. I think about how much natural light will filter into the room from the windows.

"I personally meet with the client, and from my notes and sketches, my staff helps work on the plans. Once I finalize my design, I ask the staff for full size drawings with all the details. These full-size details are given to the craftsmen — the painters, woodcarvers, and ornamental plasterers. The craftsmen I hire are skilled artisans who stay with me from project to project. If I can draw a good design for a building, the craftsmen's skill can give the building artistry.

"It's difficult for me to trace any one specific architectural style in my work. But I can say I have a fondness for the California Arts & Crafts style that Bernard Maybeck inspired me with in the early part of my schooling and career. I like to mix that tradition with the sophisticated elements of classicism that I learned at l'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and with the demands of the client and the environment, both natural and man-made.

"Today, the opportunities afforded me in the profession come fairly easily, although there are men who still doubt the creditability of a woman architect. I hope that one day, buildings will be judged by design, function, and craftsmanship. Hopefully it may forge an easier path for other woman in engineering and architecture."

Actress Jill Jackson is also performing a one-woman autobiographical show "A Long Drink of Silence" April 4 through May 11 at the Shelton Theater on Sutter Street in San Francisco. For the Julia Morgan show, she drew from many sources, including Julia Morgan, Architect by Sara Boutelle; Bernard Maybeck: Artisan, Architect, Artist by Kenneth Cardwell; Julia Morgan Architect by Cary James; Julia Morgan Architect of Dreams by Ginger Wadsworth, and Building for Hearst and Morgan, Voices from The George Loorz Papers by Taylor Coffman.

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The Chinatown, San Francisco YWCA, by Julia Morgan, now home to the Chinese Historical Society of America.
Photo: Chinese Historical Society of America

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Foyer of the Chinatown, San Francisco YWCA.
Photo: Chinese Historical Society of America

ArchWeek Image

Hallway inside the Chinatown, San Francisco YWCA.
Photo: Chinese Historical Society of America

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Pool and landscape at the "Hearst Castle" at San Simeon, California by Julia Morgan.
Great Buildings Photo by Greenstreet


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