Dan Krieger: Julia Morgan met earthquakes head-on

January 16, 2010 

The Haitian earthquake reminds us that we live a precarious existence. On June 29, 1925 at 6:44 a.m., a quake leveled most of downtown Santa Barbara.

When the temblor struck, Julia Morgan — one of America’s great architects and designer of Hearst Castle — had just gotten off the southbound Southern Pacific passenger train, The Lark.

She left the train just in time to witness one of the more famous earthquakes in California history.

Morgan had lived through the San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906.

One of her early commissions had been the rehabilitation of the newly constructed Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill.

The Fairmont was badly damaged by the 1906 temblor. Morgan analyzed the weakened structure and rebuilt it from inside out.

She knew a lot about earthquake damage. She felt that other architects might benefit from her own description of what it was like to go through a major temblor.

Morgan recorded her Santa Barbara experience in the Berkeley-based journal “Architect and Engineer.”

Here is Morgan’s very sensible and straightforward account of a major earthquake that demolished most of downtown Santa Barbara: “I left the train, and (I) decided that I could walk as far as the Carrillo (Hotel), carrying my bag and drawings. …

“Several blocks up State Street I stopped to rest, my bag on the sidewalk, my drawings leaning against an auto at the curb.

“As I stood resting I saw fine white dust coming from a brick building nearby, the same white dust which I had seen come out of the chimney near my room in San Francisco (in 1906).

“The shock came, threw me down on my knees. I crawled on my knees into the street until I felt the car tracks and then worked my way down through the blinding dust to a place in front of an auto salesroom.

“After the dust cleared it was a perceptible time before anybody came out of the buildings. When they appeared from little lower State Street hotels and rooming houses, fathers and mothers were carrying children of 8, 10 and 12 years. No children were walking. It was very touching. Evidently in the great catastrophe the parents reverted to protecting them as little children.

“At this time I became self-conscious, and as my rule is always to protect my head, I looked for something to wrap around my head, I took a gunny sack from a book on the back of an ice wagon standing near to make myself a turban. A voice from nowhere said, ‘Hey, lady, stop stealing my sacks!’ (Here begins the tale of looting).

“If that auto showroom has a single joint left, I am surprised. I could see those great plate windows quiver before every wave and shock and the concrete posts of the building moved to an angle of at least 20 degrees.

“I went up State Street to Figueroa, saw the Parochial Church and the San Marcos (Hotel), when a sudden jerk sent me off State Street to Chapala by way of the Y(MCA) to the Carrillo Hotel.

“Then, in a roundabout way, to Recreation Center I found it safe, worked my way back to State Street, got my bag from the sidewalk, where I had left it blocks away.

“(I found) my drawings, unwrapped but safe. I spent hours among the buildings and saw ‘materials working’ (Morgan’s term for the dynamics of construction materials under stress).

“It was a great practical experience.”

• • •

For many years my wife Liz and I have donated to Hearts with Haiti, an orphanage founded by a member of Mother Theresa’s order in Port au Prince. Please keep Brother Michael and his kids in your prayers.

If you are able, make a donation to Dr. Paul Farmer’s amazing medical team, Partners in Health, at www.pih.org.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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