Women of Steel and Stone contains the stories of women architects, engineers, and landscape designers from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, in the era of the women’s suffrage movement and shortly after the Industrial Revolution. This was a time when women were struggling to prove their equal worth as employees in any profession, let alone in a profession deemed a man’s job—such as working with, well, steel and stone.
One of my favorite chapters from Women of Steel and Stone was about the architect Julia Morgan, who designed the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. Being a Californian myself and having visited Hearst Castle a couple of times, I was both interested in learning more about this architect and appalled that I hadn’t heard of her in any detail yet. Morgan was born and raised in Oakland, where she finished high school—not a small feat for a woman of her time. She then went on to attend the University of California, Berkeley for engineering, and proceeded to become the first female student in architecture at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. When she returned to San Francisco a few years later, she landed only a few architecture jobs. That was until the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which destroyed most of the city, except Morgan’s buildings! Her business boomed after that and the rest of history. Being an acquaintance of William Hearst’s mother, Phoebe, Hearst hired Morgan to build what was supposed to be a modest bungalow. As Hearst’s success increased exponentially, so did his plans for his estate. Morgan worked all week on her other contracts in San Francisco, riding down to San Simeon on the weekends to work on Hearst’s Castle. In her lifetime, she finished Hearst’s mega mansion as well as more than 700 buildings in California.
This is just a digest of one of the chapters in this book. I was also pleasantly surprised to find a woman in the book who shares a last name with me, landscape designer Marian Cruger Coffin, whose background matches my husband’s family line. So who knows, maybe one of my daughters has landscape architecture in her blood!
One of the interesting things about the women in this book is their unique opinions about being a woman in a man’s field. Some showed immense talent but quit the business in disgust for the poor treatment they reserved, some were morally opposed to the special treatment of women in architecture on the grounds that there should be no difference between male and female counterparts, and some made being a successful female architect look positively effortless.
My only negative comment on this non-fiction is that I really wish it had been designed as a coffee table book. While the book does contain some small black-and-white images, full-size color images on big glossy pages would have enticed readers and inspired awe in the beauty of these women’s works so much more effectively. Nevertheless, Women of Steel and Stone is fascinating. Its large font and abridged biographies make it perfect for teenagers or adults looking for a quick—but meaningful—read.
I can’t conclude without mentioning how much I love the title, Women of Steel and Stone. Such a powerful imagery. I don’t think the author could have picked a cooler title, pun intended.
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