Morgan graduated from Oakland High School in 1890 and enrolled in the University of California, in nearby Berkeley. She graduated from the University of California with a degree in engineering in 1894 and then studied architecture privately under the local architect Bernard Maybeck, who encouraged her aspirations.
Morgan went to Paris in 1896 and in 1898 became the first woman to be enrolled in the architecture section of the École des Beaux-Arts, from which she graduated in 1902. Returning to California, she became the first woman in the state to be granted an architect’s license; and in 1921 she became one of the first women admitted to the American Institute of Architects, testimony to her successful practice.
Upon her return from Europe, Morgan began her architectural career in the San Francisco area working for the designer John Galen Howard on buildings for her alma mater; she also collaborated with Maybeck, with whom she was continuing to develop a strong professional relationship. Maybeck's personal style, a product of Beaux-Arts discipline and individual fancy, was one which appealed to her enormously and which had a lasting effect on her own style.
Among Julia Morgan's most important early projects as an independent architect were designs (begun in 1904) for several buildings on the campus of Mills College, a four-year institution for women in Oakland, California. Following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, Morgan was able to obtain a large number of commissions in the Bay Area, many of them for private homes. Like Maybeck, Morgan took an eclectic approach to design and refused to limit herself to the popular, conservative, turn-of-the-century revival styles sweeping the country and dominating the domestic market. The house that best exemplifies this attitude is also her most famous work "La Casa Grande, " William Randolph Hearst's home at San Simeon, California (begun in 1919), one of several commissions executed for the Hearst family. It is actually a complex of domestic buildings, eclectic in style, made comprehensible through Beaux-Arts organization. The commission was a difficult one as Hearst constantly changed his mind about details relating to the design; yet Morgan's patience and resolve carried her through the project.
Morgan's career was financially successful in part because she seemed to be able to deliver the kind of design that would appeal to the Hearsts and others of their economic class. Yet Morgan's works were by no means limited to lavish domestic structures. She designed several centers for the Young Women's Christian Association, as well as private clubs, churches, and commercial establishments.
Further, she created many moderate-sized homes for middle-class families. She specialized in indigenous materials, particularly in her designs for these smaller, less-expensive houses; in this way, her works can be seen to be in keeping with other, more famous California progressive architects, such as her contemporaries Charles and Henry Greene and her mentor Maybeck. The Williams and Mitchell House (1915 - 1918) is one of several redwood-shingled cottages that are perched astride the Berkeley Hills in the vicinity of San Francisco. Here, several of her solutions to the problem of the small house placed on a difficult site are in evidence: by eliminating unnecessary rooms and opening up areas of the walls with very large windows, she made the limited space feel open and airy. She also changed scale in an attempt to accommodate the building to the uneven topography. In short, whether designing for a millionaire or a schoolteacher, Morgan gave her client a carefully considered solution.
One of the hallmarks of Julia Morgan's career is that she realized so many of her projects: more than seven hundred buildings were constructed over a career that spanned nearly fifty years. One of the few unbuilt designs was a museum in the medieval style for Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and the fact that it remained unbuilt saddened the architect in her last years. Morgan ended her career on a dramatic and mysterious note when she ordered virtually all her professional records destroyed a few years before her death on February 2, 1957, in San Francisco, California.
"Architecture is a visual art, and the buildings speak for themselves. "
"My buildings will be my legacy. .. they will speak for me long after I'm gone. "
"Never turn down a job because you think it's too small; you don't know where it can lead. "
"We shape our buildings thereafter they shape us. "
"Every great architect is - necessarily - a great poet. He must be a great original interpreter of his time, his day, his age. "
At university, Julia Morgan was a member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. After her graduation, Morgan became a member of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, now the American Association of University Women.
Morgan also was a member of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA).
Julia Morgan was never married and had no known romances.