Pioneering architect Julia Morgan, best known for Hearst Castle, was born 150 years ago this month. She designed more than 700 buildings in California, but only one in the Inland Empire: the great YWCA in Riverside.
Fortunately, the 1929 building is still there, housing the Riverside Art Museum. In fact, it has been in the hands of RAM and its predecessor, the Riverside Art Alliance, for much longer than it was a YWCA.
And unlike some of Morgan’s 17 YWCAs, like the one in Pasadena, which is empty and dilapidated, the one in Riverside is well-used and well-maintained. It has been listed 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 beautiful space,” says Drew Oberjuerge, Executive Director of RAM.
I attended a Zoom conference hosted by the museum on January 20, when Morgan was born, and then arranged a tour. While I had visited for the museum’s 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 sits near an array of ancient Riverside landmarks, including Myron Hunt’s 1913 First Congregational Church and the 1928 Municipal Auditorium by Arthur Benton, its neighbor across the street. ‘Where is.
The Y seems to fit right in, although that wasn’t necessarily true in 1929 – more on that in a moment.
The Riverside Art Alliance bought the building in 1967 for $230,000 after years of creating art 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 acquired an old building that could have been considered a white elephant, with its leaky roof and moldy swimming pool, and decided to adapt it to its new purpose.
The pool in the west wing has been filled in and the space converted into a gallery. Ditto with the old east wing gymnasium, which as a gallery retains its hardwood floors, in case you fancy bringing a basketball.
The lobby still has its original fireplace, with tiles said to have been donated by Morgan to help defray the cost. The two-story atrium is a graceful gathering place during exhibition openings.
Older visitors often share memories of space, says Oberjuerge. Many talk about swimming in the pool, and not just the women, as the boys and girls in Poly High’s PE classes also used the pool.
The rooftop offers stunning riverside views. It was originally used as a badminton court and is now an event space for 160 people with shade sails and a fireplace, providing a measure of climate control.
Mezzanine dormitory spaces for short stays are now offices, studios and classrooms. “My office is a mess,” Oberjuerge apologizes, “but it’s an office in a Julia Morgan building.” Hard to beat that.
Although the Old Y is an institutional building, it’s one with decorative touches: stamped designs in the hallway walls, latticework here and there, classical columns, and Spanish wrought iron in the lobby.
We are lucky to have him. The building changed hands during the era of urban renewal, during which older buildings were often seen as takedowns. (A casualty in the mid-1960s was the nearby 1902 Carnegie Library.) Morgan’s Y has survived almost intact until today, when we are more attuned to the beauty of an older style.
“A lot of things are completely original,” Oberjuerge says of the building’s elements and fixtures. She jokes, “We never had enough money to do damage following the trends of the times.”
The Y had also not followed the trends of its time.
Hiring Morgan and endorsing his mix of Monterey, Italianate, and Neoclassical styles was a bit risky. Mission Inn owner Frank Miller promoted Mission Revival architecture as his favorite theme for Riverside, and whether acting overtly or behind the scenes, the influential Miller usually succeeded.
Not only did he try to suggest a preferred architect, but he wanted the YWCA to connect to the Auditorium being built next door. In this way, women could enter directly to serve as hostesses at events.
Say what now? That must have been the last straw.
“The Y had previously clashed with Miller over its desire for women to serve breakfast to guests of the Easter Sunrise service,” wrote Laura L. Klure in “Let’s Be Doers,” her story of the Riverside Y.
The Y went ahead by hiring a female architect, building in a mix of styles that didn’t include Mission Revival, and catering to her own needs, not Miller’s. Also, the sidewalk arbor he planned to extend from the station to the Mission Inn was cut off in front of the Y.
As Klure noted, “it must have taken considerable courage…to attempt to challenge the town’s leading citizen”.
Miller donated $15,000 for the $30,000 price of the land, although he had previously promised to do more.
I spoke on the phone to Karen McNeill, a Morgan scholar, of the Y on Friday. Where was Morgan in her career in 1929?
“It’s towards the end of the busiest part of his career with the most prestigious commissions,” McNeill explains. “The 1920s marked the height of his commissions: the bulk of the Ys, Hearst Castle, the beach house of Marion Davies.
Morgan made a specialty of designing YWCAs, usually along formal lines suited to local desires, with examples from Southern California to San Pedro, Pasadena, Long Beach, and Hollywood before Riverside.
Unlike her Hearst commissions, where money wasn’t an issue, “the Ys show her working on a shoestring,” McNeill says. Riverside cost $100,000, or about $1.6 million today.
“They were very complex. The plan had to meet all social, educational, residential and dietary needs,” says McNeill. “What they show is how masterful she was in creating compact and flexible spaces that were also beautiful.”
Visit the museum, reflect on art, and admire a rare building that was produced for women by a woman. And think about how they didn’t let the main man in town tell them how to do it.
David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, prompting readers to wonder Y. Email [email protected], call 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook, and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.