Why a Race To Splendor?

August 1, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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Meet Julia Morgan, the first licensed woman architect in California

My husband and I “met’ this extraordinary person when we moved to San Francisco eleven years ago and ended up living in a building designed by her shortly after the cataclysmic 1906 San Francisco earthquake and firestorm.  She, of course, was the very woman who (finally) won the commission to restore the Fairmont Hotel (as I mentioned in my previous blog post), a few blocks from where we first lived on Nob Hill.

Our building on the corner of Taylor and Jackson streets had been commissioned by a woman physician.  San Francisco was still considered the Wild, Wild West at the turn of the twentieth century, so perhaps a woman doctor was admitted into the local medical fraternity because there weren’t many doctors at all in California in those days.

At any rate, the speculation about our building was that Morgan’s physician-client was either her personal doctor, a sorority sister, or classmate at UC Berkeley at the end of the nineteenth century where Julia received a degree in engineering–the only woman student in the entire department!

Talk about your Old Girls Network!

Julia Morgan went on to L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and received her diploma in architecture, the first woman in the world to gain that honor.

Her main claim to fame–much after the period during which our apartment building was designed and constructed–was as the architect of the magical Hearst Castle here in central California.

As with the Duchess of Gordon (the heroine in my first novel Island of the Swans), I became  obsessed by Julia’s story of overcoming every obstacle imaginable to forge a career in the all-male realm of designing and constructing buildings.

Morgan, through a series of absolute flukes, received the commission to rebuild the fable Fairmont Hotel atop Nob HIll following the 1906 quake and employed a few women as secretaries and assistants in her fledgling firm.

In A Race to Splendor, released by Sourcebooks-Landmark in April, 2011 on the 105th anniversary of the catastrophe in San Francisco, I have chosen to tell this story through the lens of a composite heroine drawn from the lives of her female acolytes.  In this fictionalized version of an amazing tale of courage and stubbornness, I pit Julia’s protege, whom I call Amelia Hunter Bradshaw, against J.D. Thayer, a tall, dark and dangerous young entrepreneur  who vows his hotel will open before the Fairmont does, even if he has to resort to some less-than-above-board tactics to accomplish this feat.

As for my future work: as I’ve mentioned earlier, I have a parallel career in nonfiction (Rightsizing Your Life: Simplifying Your Surroundings While Keeping What Matters Most came out in 2007) and I do a lot of public speaking and writing about the subject of living more simply, which remains relevant, given the current economic downturn.

But in my fiction life: I’m now noodling about a couple of historical projects: one dealing with the eighteenth century world of Fine Bone China, another about an eighteenth century woman court painter, and yet another idea about some little-known but totally fearless nineteenth century suffragettes in the Wild West!  I’d love to know which of these subjects has the most appeal, so all comments welcome!

As always, I want to keep asking the question: “What were the women doing in history?” A famous woman academic, Gerda Lerner, once wrote (and I’m paraphrasing) “Half of human history has yet to be written because the lives of women weren’t properly chronicled by historians; and the half of human history that has been written is woefully inaccurate because the lives of women weren’t properly chronicled by (mostly) male historians.” In historical fiction, at least…

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