" A place is won at the Beaux-Arts"
Gifted in mathematics and actively encouraged by her mother, Julia Morgan excelled as a scholar. Her mother's cousin, Pierre Le Brun, who designed the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, an early New York skyscraper, kindled her interest in architecture.
In 1890, she enrolled in the undergraduate civil engineering program at the University of California at Berkeley, because there were no architectural schools on the West Coast at that time. During her senior year at Berkeley, a technical drawing class provided her with a mentor, architect Bernard Maybeck, who encouraged Morgan to move to Paris to attend his alma mater, L'École Nationale et Spéciale des Beaux-Arts.
Under the French system, students were accepted into an atelier, or studio, of a Beaux-Arts-trained architect. Once past the highly competitive entrance exams, students were assigned a succession of programmes: a suite of rooms in a grand apartment of a palace, art galleries, opera houses, and other opulent environments fit for lavish, if imaginary, clients. Students were trained to produce beautiful drawings and detailing quickly, without much emphasis on real context, such as site considerations.
After arriving in Paris in 1896, Morgan failed the entrance exam twice, but soon discovered the faculty had failed her deliberately because they "did not want to encourage young girls." In a letter home, Morgan wrote, "I'll try again next time anyway even without any expectations, just to show 'les jeunes filles' are not discouraged."
The faculty relented and Morgan was admitted to the program and secured a place in the atelier of Grand Prix de Rome winning architect-instructor Bernard Chaussemiche. Impressed with her perseverance, California philanthropist Phoebe Hearst offered to underwrite her education in Paris. Morgan declined the offer of funds but conveyed her gratitude for Hearst's support.
Morgan advanced to the first class in less than half the average time. In her free time, she traveled throughout Europe, filling sketchbook after sketchbook with accomplished watercolors, pastels, and line drawings. In 1902, after winning honors for her work in mathematics, architecture, and design, Julia Morgan became the first woman to receive Beaux-Arts certification in architecture.