"This building is in charge of a real architect "
With dîplome in hand, Morgan returned to Oakland in 1902 and joined the practice of John Galen Howard, who had opened an office in Berkeley after winning the master building plan competition for the University of California. Morgan drew the elevations and designed the decorative details for the George Hearst Mining Building and the Greek Theater on the Berkeley campus.
In 1904, Morgan opened her own office in San Francisco. One of her first commissions, a freestanding bell tower for Mills College in Oakland, withstood the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, bringing her local acclaim and new commissions, including rebuilding the seriously damaged Fairmont Hotel. A journalist, learning of this commission, hurried to the site:
"Is the building really in charge of a woman architect?" I asked the foreman The man read me a powerful sermon of just three short sentences, punctuated with the earnestness of a reform orator. "An architect's an architect," he said, "and you can count them all on the fingers of one hand. Now, this building is in charge of a real architect and her name happens to be Julia Morgan, but it might as well be John Morgan."
Disbelieving, the reporter then sought out Morgan to ask about her work as an interior decorator.
Miss Morgan smiled and answered, "I don't think you understand just what my work here has been. The decorative part was all done by a New York firm. My work has all been structural."
"Structural!" The word pegged my imagination down to earth again. For in the back of my mind I had been wondering whether architecture is not a fine field for any woman with a sensitive feeling for color and form. But "structural" conjured up a vision of strength of material and all sorts of problems, which no amount of sensitive feeling would solve.
The successful Fairmont project led to other clients, including many residential commissions in the Piedmont, Claremont and Berkeley neighborhoods, and an early triumph, St. John's Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.
Morgan's client list is a virtual roll call of influential women, women's colleges, and charitable organizations throughout California. As Morgan biographer Sara Holmes Boutelle observed, "Most of her important clients developed from recommendations from former clients and a network of both women of wealth and women professionals of more modest economic means."
Grace Merriam Fisher, a Berkeley sorority sister of Morgan's, recommended Morgan as architect for the Oakland YWCA building in 1912. The next year, Morgan began work on a series of buildings in the Arts & Crafts style for Asilomar, a seaside YWCA complex near Monterey endowed by Phoebe Hearst. Host to thousands of visitors since its founding in 1913, Asilomar is now a state park and conference center. Morgan eventually designed 28 YWCA buildings in fifteen cities, including the Honolulu YWCA and the Chinese and Japanese YWCA buildings in San Francisco.