Daring to Design Modern: Women Architects of Northern California


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Images and Text by Inge S. Horton

While enjoying lavishly illustrated books on Modern architectural history, I am troubled by the frequent omission of women architects. With one or two exceptions, women’s contributions to the modern movement in Northern California are ignored; however, I know from my research that there were indeed female practitioners of Modernism deserving recognition. I would like to draw attention to a few examples of the challenging careers and work of Northern California women architects in Modernism to illustrate that in spite of the press neglecting them during their lifetime as their rare mention in current publications, they existed and are a meaningful part of our history.

Photo (left): Kauffman House designed by Langhorst & Langhorst. Courtesy of the Langhorst Family Collection.

The Emergence of Modernism in California

In the San Francisco Bay Area, architecture was conservative and for a longer time dominated by the traditional Beaux-Arts approach, compared to the modern movement that started in Southern California in the early 1920s with the work of architects Irving Gill, Rudolf Schindler, Richard Neutra, and designers Charles and Ray Eames, among others. The excellent photography of Julius Shulman greatly contributed to make Los Angeles known as the center of Modernism in architecture. However, there were some early precursors to Modernism in the San Francisco Bay Area. A house of redwood inside and out, built by the Reverend Joseph Worcester in the mid 1870s in Piedmont as well as his Swedenborgian Church, impressed the young architect Bernard Maybeck, who then designed a simple, redwood-clad house for Charles Keeler in 1895. Inspired by this house and its natural setting, several women – lay persons, not architects - formed the Hillside Club in 1898 to protect the beauty of the hilly North Berkeley from overly decorated Victorian houses and concrete retaining walls. Charles Keeler promoted the club’s philosophy in a book The Simple Home.1Among the followers of the Simple Home or the First Bay Tradition, as it was later called, were Worcester, Maybeck, A. Page Brown, Ernest Coxhead, and Julia Morgan. 

Photo (left): Julia Morgan designed the KYA Broadcasting facility on Bayview Hill in San Francisco in the late 1930s for her major client William Randolph Hearst.

In the 1920s and 30s, architect William W. Wurster gained recognition as the creator of the Second Bay Tradition, a modern vernacular style. The 1932 impressive exhibition “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York introduced European modernism to America. The show was co-curated by Philip Johnston and Henry-Russell Hitchcock who coined the term “International Style”.2Its major characteristics were the rejection of historicism, emphasis on volume rather than mass, replacement of axiality with regularity, and (later) the avoidance of ornaments. For California, the mild climatic conditions and stunning landscape led to the close connection between the inside and outside of residences. Also, awareness of social conditions became an important factor in the housing sector, especially in addressing mass housing during and after the war.

Some of the early practitioners of Modernism started their architectural practice in classical revival styles and later shifted to Modernism. Though space and time is limited, I want to mention some of the women architects who played a significant role during this time: Helen Findlay Aycrigg, Esther Born, Elizabeth Boyter, Louise Clever, Audrey Emmons, Helen French, Arabelle Hufbauer, Vera Jansone, Lois Kartwold, Evelyn Kosmak, Roslyn Lindheim, and Hilde Reiss. These women and others are included in my book Early Women Architects of the San Francisco Bay Area – The Lives and Work of Fifty Professionals, 1890-1951.3

Breaking Loose from Tradition: "Transitional" Women Architects

Julia Morgan - with her impressive legacy of more than 700 buildings - is the most widely known and revered woman architect in California. Her early work follows the First Bay Tradition (see above) but then shifts to a richer vocabulary borrowed from historical styles in the Beaux-Arts method. In the late 1930s, she designed a few little-known modern broadcasting facilities on remote hillsides, among them the KYA broadcasting station in San Francisco. The composition is symmetrical and axial and may be classified as “decorative modernism”.4 Since she only designed these few modern buildings, it is a little farfetched to label her a “transitional” architect.

In comparison, Gertrude Comfort (Morrow) is an excellent example of a “transitional” architect as she opened her own office in downtown San Francisco in 1917 and first designed traditional houses such as the Mason residence in the Dutch Colonial Revival style. Gertrude married architect Irving Morrow in 1920 and gave birth to a daughter two years later. The Morrows joined their offices in 1925 and initially worked mainly on alterations and minor commissions. Recommended by the painter Maynard Dixon, their commission for the architectural design of Golden Gate Bridge from 1930-1937 was a breakthrough. They designed the toll plaza, the Art Deco towers and the concrete pylons, the lighting standards, and they selected the burnt orange color.

Photo (left): Irving Morrow of Morrow & Morrow was the architectural consultant for the Golden Gate Bridge and Gertrude Morrow, his wife and partner, “had her hand in it” as their daughter is quoted in Gertrude’s obituary.   

Gertrude Morrow’s participation in this project is sometimes questioned because the contract was in Irving Morrow’s name. In a 1930 letter about their approach to the architectural treatment of the Golden Gate Bridge from Morrow & Morrow to the Board of Directors of the Golden Gate Bridge & Highway District, he used “we”, “us” and “our” which seems to indicate that they both worked on the project. Additionally, they quite likely exchanged their ideas either in their small office, on the ferry commute between Oakland and San Francisco or at the dinner table.

In the early 1930s, Olive Cowell asked the Morrows to design a house  on a steeply sloping lot in Forest Hill. She knew Irving from his attendance at the avant-garde concerts of her step son, composer Henry Cowell. The house in the International Style is the first modern house in San Francisco.5Upon arrival, one is surprised to see the garage on top of the house at street level and then only later to discover the entrance at the story below leading into the living area. The garden façade consists of a carefully balanced, asymmetrical composition of horizontal windows.

The 1938 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island displayed stunningly modern architecture designed by local as well as international architects. Morrow & Morrow contributed with the design of the Alameda-Contra Costa Counties building using modern vocabulary. However, most of their houses after 1933 were conventional designs, probably because clients did not choose Modernism. After Irving’s unexpected death in 1952, Gertrude closed the office and enjoyed her retirement with water color painting and award-winning ballroom dancing.

Photo (above): Morrow & Morrow Architects designed this house for Olive Cowell, a professor at San Francisco State College, and her husband, poet Harry Cowell. The façade is not visible from the street.

Creating a New Generation of Modernists: Architects educated at UC Berkley

In the 1930s and 1940s, students at the School of Architecture of the University of California at Berkeley became interested in the Modern Movement.6However, the official line of the School under Dean Warren Perry was the Beaux-Arts tradition. The students nevertheless requested modern architecture and assignments dealing with contemporary problems such as mass housing. They challenged the authority of the faculty, sought help from University President Sproul, and in the late 1930s published an “underground” paper, The New Design,7which outlined their ideas for a modern approach to architecture. The long and drawn-out struggle became intensified when WWII veterans entered the architecture program and were not at all taken with the backwards-looking Beaux-Arts tradition and the lack of interdisciplinary connections. Finally, Dean Perry resigned in 1948 and was replaced by William Wurster who possessed excellent experience in directing an architecture school from having been dean at MIT. He – with the support of his wife, Catherine Bauer Wurster, a housing expert - went way beyond re-invigorating the Architecture Department with a revised curriculum and new faculty: he established the College of Environmental Design combining the departments of architecture, landscape architecture, and the new field of city planning in one college and thus furthering interdisciplinary exchange.

Photo (right): Gertrude Comfort Morrow of Morrow & Morrow Architects drew the bird’s-eye view of the Cowell House in Forest Hill, San Francisco, 1933. Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley.

Among the students who graduated in the 1930s, several women started out as modernists. Elizabeth Hillier (Witkin Tarris) graduated with honors in 1934 and with a travel scholarship studied the modern movement in Europe. Upon her return, she interned with Angus McSweeney until she qualified for her license in 1939, becoming the 20th credentialed woman in California. Earlier she had designed a house for herself and her husband, lawyer Bernard Witkin. The rectangular Witkin house #1 steps up a steep slope with each story set back following the incline. The garage is at street level, the living room/kitchen on the first upper level can be entered from a side stairway or the terraces encircling the house, while balconies surround the bedrooms on the top level. The modern design features are white stucco walls, large windows, a flat roof and, of course, no decorative elements. After WWII, Betty Witkin designed several innovative building types in Antioch, California. One of them, the Hamm Apartment Building combines a two-story block of apartments over garages along the street, with garden apartments in the rear of the deep lot. Unfortunately, not much is known about her work after 1956 when she filed for divorce, lost both houses, and was awarded the custody of her three children.

Photo (above): Elizabeth Witkin designed this residence for her  family in 1938, probably while she was still interning with Angus McSweeney. 

The tragic “Romeo and Juliet” story of (Martha) Jane Moorehead (Parug) and Rifat Parug from Turkey who met and fell in love in architecture school and married also plays a significant role in story of modernism in Northern California. They were very close and in their work complemented each other as he was an artistic designer while her strength was in the engineering of a project. After working for a few years with several outstanding architects, the couple started their own architectural firm in 1949 and designed several impressive modern houses. The 1958 Hurley residence in Kensington was commissioned just after they adopted a child. The house takes advantage of stunning views of the San Francisco Bay and its projecting roof elements emphasize horizontality. Tragically, Jane was struck by cancer and died in 1965. Rifat was not able to emotionally recover from the loss of his beloved wife or to continue his promising career. After a few years of struggle he took his own life. 

Architects Migrating to the Bay Area

A few women, who graduated in the 1930s and 1940s elsewhere, migrated to the Bay area enticed by its reputation for excellent architecture. Rebecca Wood (Esherick Watkin) graduated in 1937 in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and moved to the Bay Area hoping to work with modern architects. She applied to many architectural firms but nobody would hire a woman. She finally found a position with an architect in San Rafael designing mostly colonial style houses although that was not what she had sought. In 1938, she married architect Joseph Esherick whom she knew from Penn. About ten years later she designed their own home in Kent Woodlands with Joe consulting. The style of the house with a huge gabled roof and large glass walls is stunningly modern. In 1946, she earned her architectural license and worked for her husband on a variety of projects while raising their three children. After their divorce in 1951, she started her own practice, mostly designing houses, apartment houses and alterations, some of which were built by her second husband, Harold Watkin.

Photo (above): Rebecca Wood Esherick (Watkin) was the architect of the Esherick house in Kent Woodlands, CA in 1950 (with Joe Esherick serving as a consultant). The house was demolished after her death and its sale in 2010. Courtesy of Lisa Esherick.

In 1941 Lois Wilson Worley (Langhorst) moved to the Bay Area with the goal of working in the office of William Wurster, who was known for the most exciting work in the country. She was highly qualified with two bachelor degrees in architecture and architectural engineering and a Master’s in architecture from MIT. Yet, her visit at Wurster’s office turned out to be disappointing. At that time, Wurster did not allow women in his office – not even a secretary - because he feared that they would distract his team.8Lois’ visit was not without consequences as she met one of his employees, architect Fred Langhorst. They fell in love, married and opened their own office and, after the war, became very successful with their modern residential architecture.

Their work was widely published but Lois was not always acknowledged for her contributions, partly due to her husband not crediting her work and partly due to journalists who were not in the habit of acknowledging women’s professional work. 

Photo (right): Kauffman House. Lois Langhorst is the inventor and designer of the first kitchen island, Burlingame, 1949. Courtesy of the Langhorst Family Collection.

In an article titled "Home - Physical Form or Emotion," Lois Langhorst explained her understanding of modern homes.9

"Today, our homes are a variety of forms, of styles, Colonial, Spanish, English, each borrowed from another time and culture. Each has a look for which we have an emotional attachment. None quite fits the needs of today, the way in which we live. Each is a picture, a nostalgic effort to capture what was never truly ours…In attempting to retain the appearance of that which we have known, we do not realize the possible beauty that we could achieve in creating a new and fresh approach, the building which is of our day and time and the way we live…"

With the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, construction of non-war related projects was halted and many projects on drawing boards had to be abandoned. The Langhorsts decided to close their office and move with their three daughters to Europe. By the time they returned to San Francisco in 1955, their marriage had fallen apart and they divorced. Lois, then a single mother with three children, needed to earn income because in the bitter divorce proceedings she had neglected to secure sufficient income from Fred. She worked for several architectural firms and also began teaching. She was the first female faculty member in the Architecture Department at UC Berkeley and enjoyed teaching the design studio to third year students because it allowed her to use her architectural engineering background. Unfortunately, Dean Wurster did not grant her tenure after six years as a lecturer/assistant professor. To improve her teaching credentials Lois enrolled at Harvard in architectural history and earned a Master’s degree. She then taught at the Universities of Kentucky, North Carolina and Louisville.

Now that a little more is known

It gives me pleasure to set the record straight and to expand the history of Modernism by including examples to show that women were present and significantly contributed to the modern movement in the San Francisco Bay Area; some as outstanding architects with innovative designs, others as everyday architects who created livable houses and places of work, and still others as teachers positively influencing the next generation. This condensed account of my research could only hint at the cost of their professional engagement to their private lives with - for example - many divorces which left the women to care for their children in addition to having to earn their living while being paid less than their male colleagues and without much media or professional recognition. You can find additional information about these women as well as other women architects in Modernism in my book Early Women Architects which also includes the addresses of buildings needed for visiting them, providing further appreciation. Perhaps this effort will encourage others to research the less recognized architects of Modernism in other regions. If you know of Bay Area women architects not mentioned in this article or my book please contact me through my website.

Photo (above): Jane and Rifat Parug were commissioned to build the Hurley residence in Kensington, CA in 1958.

Inge Schaefer Horton is a retired city planner with a strong background in architectural history who now devotes her time to the research of women architects and preservation issues in San Francisco.

She is the author of the book Early Women Architects in the San Francisco Bay Area – The Lives and Work of Fifty Professionals, 1890-1951 published in 2010 by McFarland and Company, NC.

She is also a contributing author to Design on the Edge: A Century of Teaching Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, 1903-2003 (2010), two early publications on the architecture of Berlin and Paris/Brussels, which were published in German by werk, Switzerland, and several articles.


1Keeler, Charles, The Simple Home, San Francisco: P. Elder and Company, 1904, online http://www.oregoncoast.net/simplehome.html

2Hitchcock, Henry-Russell; Philip Johnson, The International Style: Architecture since 1922, New York, WW Norton & Company, 1932

3Horton, Inge Schaefer, Early Women Architects of the San Francisco Bay Area – The Lives and Work of Fifty Professionals, 1890-1951, Jefferson, NC, McFarland & Company, 2010

4“Decorative Modernism” was coined by Irving Morrow in an article “Why Modern Architecture?” in Architect and Engineer, September 1941, p.32.

5Please note that, in the early thirties, the San Francisco architect William Wurster was already well known for his early modern houses, especially the 1928 Gregory Farmhouse in the Santa Cruz mountains, in a rustic Second Bay Tradition style, but he had not yet built in San Francisco.

6This section is based on William Littman’s article “The Final Days of the Beaux-Arts: Warren Perry and the Student Campaign for Modernism at Berkeley”, in Lowell, Waverly et al, Design on the Edge, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design, University of California, 2009.

7Sigma Delta Chi, the new design, Berkeley, University of California, 1937-39, Copies No, 6 and 7 at the Bancroft Library.

8A few years later, Wurster changed his policy regarding women architects and employed several of them as for example Audrey Ksanda (Emmons) around 1949 and Roslyn Lindheim in 1958.

9Langhorst, Lois Wilson, “Home - Physical Form or Emotion”, The Anchora of Delta Gamma, January 1946, VLXII, no.2, pp. 3-5.