The life of the female architect

Posted: November 18th, 2016 | Columns, Homes & Garden, Lifestyle, Top Story | 1 Comment

By Michael Good | House Calls

Success came with a price in early 20th century

Long before any female presidential candidate banged her head against the highest and hardest glass ceiling in the land, a sisterhood of California women were swinging their lady-grip hammers at another transparent barrier — the entrance to the boys club known as architecture.

When UC Berkeley enrolled its first architecture class in 1904 — the roster was evenly divided, with five women and five men. But education was only half the battle. There was also the thorny problem of creating a career, of making a life for oneself. The evidence seems to point to a price for these successful early-20th century women architects: domestic solitude. But they had each other.

The little cottage that started it all: Hazel Wood Waterman’s first collaboration with Irving Gill. (Photos by Michael Good)

The little cottage that started it all: Hazel Wood Waterman’s first collaboration with Irving Gill. (Photos by Michael Good)

Alice Klauber 

She might be best known as a socialite and art patron, but Alice Klauber was also an accomplished fine artist, an inspiration to her peers and a groundbreaking interior designer.

Lately she’s also become something of a feminist “outlier,” a woman of verve and action who sparked a revolution in art and culture. In a new bio, “Ladies of the Canyon,” Lesley Poling-Kempes tells how Klauber, daughter of an early San Diego merchant, helped establish Santa Fe, New Mexico as an artist colony, and helped connect the East Coast art establishment with the freewheeling West. And she did it all on horseback, without a husband, camping under the stars, while wearing trousers. Well, I made up the part about the trousers. She wasn’t that big of an outlier.

Klauber designed the Persimmon Room at the Panama-California Exposition, a ladies-only retreat that was a portent of design trends to come. Out go the earth tones, the stiff-backed oak chairs and the leather. In come the Navajo rugs, black lacquered wicker furniture and a daring color scheme of persimmon, black and soft brown. More than 100,000 women visited the Persimmon Room, put their feet up and thought, “Now isn’t this nice!”

Julia Morgan

One of the first women to get a degree in civil engineering from UC Berkeley (in 1894), Morgan became the first female graduate of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1902. She was also the first licensed female architect in California.

Upon returning to the U.S., she went back to working with mentor Bernard Maybeck, then branched out on her own, designing more than 800 buildings, including William Hearst’s San Simeon, making her one of the most prolific architects in America.

In San Diego, Morgan designed the YWCA downtown and the “Hostess House” at Camp Kearny (near today’s Kearny Mesa). Both buildings had interiors designed by Alice Klauber.

The fact that Camp Kearny needed a Hostess House says something about America circa 1917. Before women could go anywhere on the base, they had to first check in at the Hostess House. The war department issued a statement that year directed at free-spirited women: “No young woman should approach or converse familiarly with a man in uniform unless introduced by a mutual friend or unless he has been properly vouched for by the community organizations.” And if they want to vote, they should just ask their husbands to do it!

Morgan was very private about her private life. Or maybe she just didn’t have one. Hearst Castle consumed much of her energy. She worked on it from 1919 to her retirement in 1951. Architectural writer Esther McCoy wonders how she could have “submerged herself in the demands of the master of San Simeon for 30 years. One of his habits, for instance, was to make revisions directly on the tracings — a big X over what he disapproved, reinforced by the word OUT.”

Stone studio: With three kids, Hazel Wood Waterman worked from home.

Stone studio: With three kids, Hazel Wood Waterman worked from home.

Hazel Wood Waterman 

Many of the early female architects were single women of means. Hazel Wood came from a middleclass family — her father was a school superintendent in the Central Valley — but she did end up marrying into money. Her husband Waldo was the son of California Gov. Robert Whitney Waterman, who had interests in mining and railroads. They met at Berkeley, where she studied art.

In 1902 the couple hired Irving Gill to build a small stone cottage on a hill overlooking the harbor. Hazel began to make her own contributions to the house’s design, with Gill’s approval. She rearranged the sink, serving table and stove in the kitchen.

Gill was impressed. He said, “Well, Mrs. Waterman, if you ever have to support yourself, you should by all means study architecture, you have a natural talent for it.”

On her own: Waterman windows and pillars were a slight departure from Gill.

On her own: Waterman windows and pillars were a slight departure from Gill.

On Feb. 23, 1903, Waldo died of pneumonia. Hazel had a small income from the railroad and an insurance policy, but decided to ask Gill for help. He offered her a job in 1904. She was a draftsman and designer until 1906, when she struck out on her own.

Waterman designed the Wednesday Club, where Alice Klauber was a member, and turned Casa de Estudillo into a tourist attraction, “Ramona’s Marriage Place,” for John D. Spreckels. Waterman remained single for the remainder of her life, and retired in 1929. She lived alternatively with her son, an aircraft designer, and her daughter Helen, a trained architect who gave up the profession for marriage and family.

Lilian J. Rice

Lilian J. Rice grew up in National City. Her father was a teacher. Her mother was an artist who gave neighborhood kids tours of her upstairs art studio. Before she was born (in 1889), her father was principal of Russ School. (His vice principal was Berkeley graduate Kate Sessions, who became a mentor, friend and eventual colleague for Lilian.)

Rice graduated from National City High School a year early and enrolled in UC Berkeley in the architecture program. When Rice graduated in 1910, two of her classmates immediately got jobs with Julia Morgan. Rice went home to take care of her sick mother.

In 1911, Rice got her teaching credential. She taught mathematics in National City and geometry at San Diego State College. She also worked part time as a draftsman for Hazel Waterman, working on Casa de Estudillo, the Hospital for Babies and the Wednesday Club.

In 1910, Rice joined the all-woman ZLAC Rowing Club. By 1915 she was its president. Klauber was a member, as was Hazel Waterman’s daughter Helen. (At Hazel’s request, Klauber became Helen’s mentor. Helen eventually followed Rice to Berkeley, where she got her architecture degree in 1914.)

In 1921, Rice joined Requa’s architectural practice. In 1922, she began living and working on-site at the new planned development of Rancho Santa Fe. Officially, Requa was the master architect, but biographer Diane Y. Welch claims that Rice personally designed most of the houses credited to Requa.

At any rate, by 1929 Rice officially parted ways with Requa. She stayed active during the 1930s, designing houses in Rancho Santa Fe, La Jolla, El Cerrito, Escondido and La Mesa. In 1934, she designed a new clubhouse for ZLAC on Mission Bay. She died in 1938 of ovarian cancer. Rice never married and apparently lived alone.

Esther McCoy

Like so many Easterners before her, Esther McCoy moved to California for her health. She had been living the bohemian life in Greenwich Village, writing fiction and consorting with artists and eccentrics, when she came down with double pneumonia and ended up in the hospital. At the suggestion of a friend, she moved to Los Angeles, planning to wait out the wet and cold spring before returning home. Instead she stayed on — for some 50 years. She later wrote that she made the decision to stay the instant she stepped off the train in San Bernardino and smelled the orange blossoms.

McCoy considered herself a failed fiction writer, but most writing students would be delighted to have her success — published in the New Yorker, included in “The Best Short Stories of 1950,” author of numerous crime novels and friends with writing luminaries like Ray Bradbury and Theodore Dreiser. She met Dreiser in 1924, while still a student, and had worked for him as a researcher before moving to California.

Freelance jobs were scarce when she arrived in 1932, so McCoy went to work again for Dreiser (who had also moved to LA), and at the start of the war took a job as a mechanical draftsman at Douglas Aircraft. From 1944 through 1947 she worked for Architect Rudolph Schindler, whose office was near Dreiser’s home on King’s Road. She applied to USC’s school of architecture but was “discouraged” from attending because of her gender and advanced age (she was 40). In 1945 she wrote an article about her employer called “Rudolph Schindler, Space Architect” for Direction magazine. Thus began her career as an architectural writer.

McCoy applied the techniques of fiction to architectural writing. She wrote about the architects as well as the architecture. She turned them into characters in a drama about what it meant to be human — and Californian. She cemented the careers of architects like Schindler and turned the designers of the Case Study Houses into rock stars. Her book “Five California Architects” revived interest in Bernard Maybeck, Charles and Henry Greene and Irving Gill, and established their place in history as modernists.

McCoy thought there was something about California that made its unique architecture possible, that encouraged experimentation and daring — particularly since nobody on the East Coast took it seriously.

When McCoy applied to Rudolph Schindler during the war, she did so because she’d heard one of his assistants had just been drafted. She didn’t think he’d offer her a job; she just wanted to get a look inside his office, which he’d designed. After looking at her architectural drawings, biographer Susan Morgan says, “Schindler spoke to her as a fellow architect and hired her on the spot. For McCoy, the encounter was an unexpected moment of clarity, surprising and irrevocable.”

Years later, after McCoy sent her profile of Schindler to Direction magazine, the imperious Austrian asked why she hadn’t submitted it to him first for approval.

“Don’t you want it to be right?” he asked.

“No,” she said, “I want it to be mine.”

—Contact Michael Good at

One Comments

  1. Tanya Fuhrman says:

    I am looking for the woman architect that designed my cousin’s home in Spring Valley on Lamar St. She believes her first name was Jean, but not quite sure. It was built after a fire took her first home and her beloved pet dog.
    She has always been very grateful to this person.
    Loving my cousin and trying to help her, Tanya

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