Shattering the glass ceiling
In honor of Women’s History Month, the Nevada City Arts Council recognizes and celebrates the women who have made a remarkable contribution to the cultural legacy of Grass Valley and Nevada City.
One such woman was Julia Morgan, California’s first female architect.
Morgan was born in San Francisco in 1872 and grew up in nearby Oakland. She graduated with a degree in civil engineering from University of California at Berkeley. While there she developed in interest in architecture, which is thought to have been fostered by her mother’s cousin, Pierre Le Brun, who designed the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower in New York City.
At Berkeley, one of Morgan’s instructors, Bernard Maybeck, encouraged her to pursue her architectural studies in Paris at the influential arts school Ecole des Beaux-Arts. She was initially refused admission because the Ecole had never before admitted a woman. After a two-year wait, Julia Morgan gained entrance to the prestigious program and became the first woman to receive a certificate in architecture.
In 1903, soon after graduation, Morgan returned to the Bay Area and opened her own architectural firm, quickly establishing herself as an outstanding residential architect, and securing a number of commissions in the Piedmont, Claremont and Berkeley neighborhoods.
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One of her first commissions, a freestanding bell tower for Mills College in Oakland, withstood the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. With that success, she was tapped to rebuild the damaged Fairmont Hotel. A San Francisco journalist apparently rushed to the hotel site wondering how a woman could possibly be put in charge of such a large project.
Morgan’s most famous and spectacular design was, of course, Hearst Castle, but in her wake, she left at least 800 buildings including the North Star House. Built in 1905 it was Morgan’s first residential commission. Located one mile from downtown Grass Valley, it served as the superintendent’s house for the North Star Mine.
As the mines became more successful and prosperous there was a need for a more suitable social center for entertaining investors, other mining owners and managers, visitors from San Francisco, and the gentry of Grass Valley. James Duncan Hague, owner of the North Star Mine, commissioned the house to be built so the North Star Mine’s superintendent Arthur DeWint Foote (Hague’s brother-in-law) and his wife Mary Hallock Foote could properly entertain guests. Hague and Foote would work with Morgan on the design of the house.
It should be noted that Mary Hallock Foote was a well-known author and artist. She studied art in New York City at the new Cooper Institute School of Design for Women and by her early 20s she had become established in New York City as an accomplished artist-illustrator for notable publishers there.
After marrying Arthur DeWint Foote, the couple moved throughout the west, finally settling down in Grass Valley. She is best known for her illustrated short stories and novels portraying life in the mining communities of the turn-of-the-century American West.
The 10,000-square-foot Julia Morgan North Star House is designed in the Arts and Crafts style, popular in the early 20th century. According to an article in The Union from 2004 written by Bob Wycoff, Evelyn Gardiner, a granddaughter of Arthur DeWint Foote, remembered that the house originally had 10 bedrooms, including three for the servants. There was a darkroom upstairs where Arthur DeWint Foote practiced his photography. Many of his photos can be seen today in the North Star and the Empire Mine displays.
The home is oriented west and u-shaped in plan. An entry courtyard is situated on the east side, while a sprawling stone terrace is on the west side. Inside, the home was magnificently paneled in native wood, and the surrounding porch was overhung by the second floor. On the second level, an open-air sleeping porch was situated above the terrace. Exterior supporting pillars and walls were made from North Star mine rock. The entire house was covered in cedar shingles.
The home was completed in 1905 and was home to three generations of the Foote Family until 1968.
Morgan retired in the early 1950s and led a reclusive life until her death in 1957.
The North Star House is currently owned and operated by the North Star Historic Conservancy. It is listed on both the National Register of Historic Places and the California State Historic Buildings Register. It is located at 12075 Auburn Road in Grass Valley. More information can be found at http://www.thenorthstarhouse.org.
This is the first of a series of stories submitted by the Nevada County Arts Council on the Grass Valley/Nevada City Cultural District. In 2017, the California Arts Council selected 14 districts to serve as California’s inaugural state-designated Cultural Districts. Nevada County was bestowed the great honor of being home to two of the 14 districts — Grass Valley/Nevada City and Truckee. More information on the Cultural Districts can be found at http://www.nevadacountyarts.org and through its biweekly newsletter.
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