I’m a little surprised you agreed to this interview, Miss Morgan. You have always been reluctant to speak about yourself in public.
That is true. I have always refused interviews. I’ve never sought the limelight. I leave that to others, with egos far greater than mine. However, I think it’s time for me to open that door, even if only a crack. I recognize that by being silent, people may have an inaccurate picture of me, and accuracy matters, don’t you agree?
Absolutely! Speaking of accuracy, little is known about your early years before you became a legendary architect. I know you were born in San Francisco, and as a young child your family moved across the bay to Oakland. You attended Oakland public schools before enrolling at the university in Berkeley. What were those years like, growing up in Oakland in the late 1800s’s?
(JM smiles for the first time, leans back in her chair) Oakland was so beautiful then, and true to its name, oak trees were plentiful, growing in front of houses, on street corners, spreading their green splendor throughout our neighborhoods. Charming Victorian houses lined the streets. Travel was by horse and buggy mostly on dirt roads, as well as on a growing number of paved streets with actual sidewalks which made roller skating so much more fun. The houses in my neighborhood were surrounded by low-set iron or picket fences connecting one to the other. As a child, I preferred the pickets. The narrow wood crossbeams nailed along their backside turned into a raised sidewalk, a perfect fit for small feet. Besides the oaks, there were a few towering Monterey pines that provided another wonderful childhood diversion. A low hanging limb made an easy first step. The rest of the way was like climbing a ladder. I loved being up there, high above the ground. The higher, the better.
Your dream of becoming an architect at a time when the Victorian Era was near its end, must have been challenging?
Oh my, yes. The expectations for young girls always created problems for me. While I never fit the mold dictated by society, I did manage to avoid drawing too much criticism by staying quiet and respectful. However, there is something you must understand. The realization that I wanted to become an architect developed slowly. I didn’t wake up one morning with a clear picture. It was a gradual unfolding, much like watching a building go up—a little at a time.
The opportunity to watch the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge was one of those pieces. After 14 long years of dangerous and stunning engineering work, it finally opened to the public in 1883. I had been watching it develop from before I could walk. My mother’s parents, my grandparents, lived within walking distance from this engineering marvel. My family made frequent trips from Oakland to the east coast on the transcontinental train. I was there shortly after the grand opening of the bridge. What a thrill! When I first stood on that bridge beside my architect cousin, Pierre LeBrun, I knew that I wanted to create something extraordinary in my life, I just did not yet know how.
And by the way, during those early years of my life in Oakland, the city was in the midst of a building boom, construction everywhere. In fact, my family built its own magnificent home. I followed that project with great enthusiasm.
Oakland High School played a significant role in your life. Can you tell us something about those years and how they influenced your path to architecture?
My early school years were easy for me. I was always at the top of my class, but survived being teased by staying quiet, almost invisible. Everything changed in high school, mostly because I chose what was called The Science Track, filled with arrogant boys and a sprinkling of girls. That was where I met Miss Mollie Connors, the school’s memorable and influential drafting teacher. And that was also when the boys began to show their true colors. They had little patience for a girl sitting next to them, especially one who had caught Miss Connor’s eye. What a force! She inspired many future architects.
When you enrolled at the University of California, you majored in engineering. What was behind that unusual choice?
I had no choice. By that time, I knew I wanted to become an architect, but the program had not yet been established. Even so, both my cousin, Pierre LeBrun and Miss Connors supported my decision to major in engineering They rightly believed that it would give me a sound grounding for my future study of architecture. They were right! Many of my buildings stand today of my buildings’ ability to withstanding earthquake and fire.
What was your college experience like?
College at Berkeley was a mix of experiences. I studied hard, dealt with arrogant male students and antagonistic professors, most who believed that a woman’s place was in the home. The smartest thing I did was join the first sorority on campus, Kappa Alpha Theta, which, by the way, we still refer to as a fraternity. Without these smart, caring, energetic women in my life I probably would have spent all four years in the library buried under my pile of books.
Did your parents support you in this dream?
What an interesting question. Yes and no. The truth is, while my mother was proud of my achievements throughout my lifetime, during those high school years she was deeply worried about how my ambition could disrupt my path to happiness. Most girls and their parents in well-off families had but one dream. To ‘come out’ as a debutante, to be courted by attentive young men, to select one as a mate, and to live happily ever after as a wife and mother. By the time I became of age, I knew my dream was to become an architect. I also knew that having both marriage and a career would never be possible. But of course, I did not use that argument with my mother. Instead, I convinced her to focus her energies on my younger sister, Emma, who was known in the family as the ‘beauty’ while I was considered to be ‘the brain.’ Needless to say, although Mama was devasted, in the end she permitted me following my dream.
Papa, on the other hand, supported me from the beginning. He and I would frequently visit the construction site of our new home, and he even escorted me to San Francisco to purchase my drafting equipment for high school. I believe he had some experience with deferring dreams.
You succeeded in achieving the dreams of your youth. Your path was challenging as well as rewarding. As you look back to those early days, what essential elements helped you most?
Two personal attributes paved my way from the beginning—courage and persistence,. These characteristics will always play an important role in achieving one’s dreams, which has been especially true for women.
As an educator, Susan J. Austin knows the minds of young readers. Her first novel, The Bamboo Garden, is set in Berkeley, California, 1923, and describes an unlikely friendship between two girls that is tested by a fierce fire that threatens to destroy their town. Currently, she is writing about twelve-year-old Goldie, a whiz kid in the kitchen who hopes that her culinary magic can help her family’s delicatessen out of a pickle in 1928 Hollywood. Her characters are always brave, strong willed risk-takers. Writing historical fiction offers her a way to educate and excite her readers about the past. She and her husband live in Northern California, surrounded by family, their splendid but fussy rose bushes, and a lifetime collection of books. Learn more at www.susanjaustin.com.