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Barbara Walking in the Valley
A weekly column for those who live and walk in Silicon Valley

by Barbara Dahlgren

How's Your Foundation?
Column for the week of January 4-10, 2004

An earthquake was an odd way to usher in Christmas and the New Year but when one lives in California, quakes are part of the territory. It was the biggest quake to hit the central California area since 1952 and one of the most widely felt in California history. It struck last Monday around 11 a.m. and measured 6.5 in magnitude. The jolt stemmed from a fault line near San Simeon where the famed Hearst Castle is located. Buildings as far away as San Francisco swayed and many in nearby Paso Robles collapsed including their historic Clock Tower, causing two deaths. Paso Robles is 24 miles from the epicenter. Oddly enough Hearst Castle, which is only 11 miles from the epicenter sustained very little damage. One must ask, “Why?”

The reason could very well be Julia Morgan, a woman way ahead of her time. Morgan was born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, CA. She was the only woman to complete a civil engineering degree from the University of California in 1872. While other ladies dreamed of marriage and babies, Morgan dreamed of building the houses they would live in. She traveled to Paris to study architecture but was refused admission for two years because she was a woman. They eventually were forced to accept her after she won almost every prestigious architecture competition in Europe.

After returning to San Francisco, she opened her “Julia Morgan: Architect” office where she designed and built the Oakland Mills College Bell Tower in 1904 and repaired St. John’s Presbyterian Church and the prestigious Fairmont Hotel after the 1906 earthquake. From this point on her career was secure. Many times her work was commissioned by Women’s groups such as the YWCA who hired her to build YWCA buildings in California, Hawaii, and Utah as well as the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, CA.

In 1919 William Randolph Hearst chose Julia Morgan to design and build the “ranch,” his affectionate term for Hearst Castle in central California’s sleepy hamlet of San Simeon. He had chosen well because Morgan’s engineering and architectural background as well as her experience using reinforced concrete made her well suited for the enormous task. She spent the next 25 years working closely with Hearst on every detail of the Castle. They discussed everything from structure design to purchasing and placing antiques and works of art to which vacuum cleaner to buy. She also personally hired all the construction workers and household staff. In addition she maintained another client list and did other Hearst projects. She was an extraordinary person.
Rumors would have us believe that Hearst plucked Julia from obscurity and took a chance by giving her this golden opportunity but not so. Julia Morgan had a 20 year, well established career by the time she met him. Some Hearst Castle tour guides say that Morgan was chosen because her buildings withstood the 1906 earthquake. That is not documented but may be closer to the truth. In any case her Hearst Castle withstood this latest earthquake, which adds to her legacy.

Let’s contrast that to the collapse of the 111-year-old historic Clock Tower of Paso Robles, which was renovated just 12 years ago. Unfortunately, during the renovation no one took the time, effort, or expense to reinforced it to withstand an earthquake even though Paso Robles is located near a well-known fault zone. What were they thinking?
It reminds me of the old Biblical parable about the wise man and foolish man. (Matthew 7:24-27) The foolish man built his house on the sand and when the rains came it collapsed. The wise man built his house on the rock and when the rains came, it stood firm. A good foundation can make all the difference in the world. Do you have one? God makes a mighty good foundation. In fact Matthew 7:24 says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

With a new year upon us you might want to rethink what you are building on. If the renovators of that Paso Robles Clock Tower had thought ahead, perhaps those two lives could have been spared.


Be sure to visit this page every week to read the next edition of Walking in the Valley. You can write to the author at



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