Pioneering female architect Julia Morgan, best known for Hearst Castle, was born 150 years ago this month. She designed more than 700 buildings in California but just one in the Inland Empire: Riverside’s grand YWCA.
Thankfully, the 1929 building is still around, home to the Riverside Art Museum. In fact, it was in the hands of RAM and its predecessor, the Riverside Art Alliance, far longer than it was a YWCA.
And unlike some of Morgan’s 17 YWCAs, such as Pasadena’s, which is empty and decaying, Riverside’s is well used and well cared for. It’s been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982 and has undergone thoughtful renovations to adapt the interior to modern needs.
“It’s such an amazing building. It’s just a lovely space,” says Drew Oberjuerge, RAM’s executive director.
I sat in on a Zoom talk hosted by the museum on Jan. 20, Morgan’s birthdate, and then arranged for a tour. While I’d visited for museum programming, I wanted to see the building as a piece of architecture and find out how it came to be.
At 3425 Mission Inn Ave., the YWCA is near a clutch of old Riverside landmarks, including Myron Hunt’s 1913 First Congregational Church and Arthur Benton’s 1928 Municipal Auditorium, its neighbor to the west.
The Y seems to fit right in, although that wasn’t necessarily true in 1929 — more on that in a bit.
The Riverside Art Alliance bought the building in 1967 for $230,000 after years of art-making in a former dog pound — yes, a dog pound — on Brockton Avenue. (Unanswered question: Who let the art out?)
The Y needed the money from the sale to build a new facility on Magnolia Avenue, which opened in 1971.
The Art Alliance gained an old building that could have been considered a white elephant, what with its leaky roof and moldy swimming pool, and resolved to make it fit its new purpose.
The west wing’s swimming pool was filled in and the space converted into a gallery. Ditto with the former gymnasium on the east wing, which as a gallery retains its hardwood floors, in case you feel like bringing in a basketball.
Riverside Art Museum’s Art Alliance Gallery used to be an indoor pool at the former YWCA designed by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan with a mix of Mediterranean and Classical Revival styles in Riverside on Wednesday, January 26, 2022. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press -Enterprise/SCNG)
The lobby still has its original fireplace, with tile said to have been donated by Morgan to help defray the cost. The two-story atrium is a gracious gathering spot during exhibit openings.
Older visitors often share memories of the space, Oberjuerge says. Many talk about swimming in the pool, and not just women, because boys and girls in Poly High’s PE classes used the pool too.
The rooftop offers an expansive view of Riverside. It was originally used as a badminton court and now is an event space for 160 with shade sails and a fireplace, offering a measure of climate control.
The mezzanine’s dormitory spaces for short-term stays are now offices, studios and classroom spaces. “My office is messy,” Oberjuerge says apologetically, “but it’s an office in a Julia Morgan building.” Hard to beat that.
While the old Y is an institutional building, it’s one with decorative touches: designs stamped into hallway walls, latticework here and there, classical columns and Spanish wrought iron in the lobby.
We’re lucky to have it. The building changed hands during the urban renewal era, in which older buildings were often seen as teardowns. (One mid-1960s casualty was the 1902 Carnegie Library nearby.) Morgan’s Y survived nearly intact into today, when we’re more sensitive to the beauty of an older style.
“A lot of things are totally original,” Oberjuerge says of the building’s elements and fixtures. She jokes: “We never had enough money to do damage by following the trends of the time.”
Some of the windows are still original glass at the Riverside Art Museum that was a former YWCA designed by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan with a mix of Mediterranean and Classical Revival styles in Riverside on Wednesday, January 26, 2022. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press Enterprise/SCNG)
The Y hadn’t followed the trends of its time either.
Hiring Morgan and approving her mix of Monterey, Italianate and Neoclassical styles was a bit risky. Mission Inn owner Frank Miller was promoting Mission Revival architecture as his preferred theme for Riverside, and whether acting openly or behind the scenes, the influential Miller usually got his way.
Not only did he try to suggest a favored architect, he wanted the YWCA to connect to the Auditorium under construction next door. That way women could enter directly to serve as hostesses for events.
Say what now? That must have been the last straw.
“The Y had already clashed with Miller over his desire for the women to serve breakfast to Easter Sunrise Service guests,” Laura L. Klure wrote in “Let’s Be Doers,” her history of the Riverside Y.
The Y forged ahead on its own by hiring a female architect, building in a mix of styles that did not include Mission Revival and meeting their own needs, not Miller’s. Also, the sidewalk arbor he envisioned stretching from the train station to the Mission Inn was interrupted in front of the Y.
As Klure noted, “it must have taken considerable courage…to try to challenge the town’s leading citizen.”
Miller donated $15,000 toward the $30,000 price of the land, although he had earlier promised to do more.
I spoke Friday by phone to Karen McNeill, a Morgan scholar, about the Y. Where was Morgan in her career in 1929?
“It’s toward the end of the busiest part of her career with the most prestigious commissions,” McNeill explains. “The 1920s marked the height of her commissions: the bulk of the Ys, Hearst Castle, Marion Davies’ beach house.”
Morgan made a specialty of designing YWCAs, usually along formal lines adapted to local desires, with Southern California examples in San Pedro, Pasadena, Long Beach and Hollywood prior to Riverside.
Unlike her Hearst commissions, where money was no object, “the Ys show her working with a limited budget,” McNeill says. Riverside’s cost $100,000, or about $1.6 million today.
“They were very complex. The plan had to work for all the social, educational, residential and food service needs,” McNeill says. “What they show is how masterful she was at creating compact, flexible spaces that were also beautiful.”
Visit the museum, ponder the art and admire a rare building that was produced for women by a woman. And reflect on how they didn’t let the city’s leading male tell them how to do it.
David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, making readers wonder Y. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.