Research and Book by Inge Horton

Ella Castelhun: A Lesser-Known Woman Architect

Ella Castelhun
Ella Castelhun

In 1901, the State of California adopted a law which required all practicing architects to be licensed after demonstrating their experience in the field of architecture or after passing an exam and fulfilling certain education and experience requirements. Julia Morgan was the first woman to appear on the roster, she received License number B344 in 1904. Ella Castelhun, the second woman licensed to practice architecture (license number B 358) in California in 1905, is hardly known today.

Doyle House, San Francisco
Doyle House, San Francisco

Historical San Francisco City Directories list Ella Castelhun from 1890 to 1939 as a schoolteacher in public schools. This fact raised more questions than it answered. Why would a schoolteacher maintain a license which allows her to practice architecture in California? Maybe she designed houses during summer vacations? She must have been serious about being an architect when she paid the annual fee, which was a considerable amount of money for a teacher.

McKeown House, San Francisco
McKeown House, San Francisco

I continued my search on the Internet and was quite successful. Ancestry.com listed the dates of her birth in 1868, her death in 1961 and the names of her parents. The site also provided me with an electronic contact to the submitter of the information, her great-grandnephew, Scott Trimble. He had explored the history of his ancestors and told me more about "Aunt Ella." That her artistic talent can be traced back to her father, a poet and surgeon, and her grandfather on her mother's side who was a famous landscape artist and illustrator of biology and anatomy. That she attended the University of California and graduated with a Bachelor's degree of Philosophy (Ph.B.) in Architecture in 1898. And that she died in 1961 after teaching for about fifty years, and is buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. To my disappointment, neither he nor other relatives whom I subsequently contacted knew much about her architectural work. Her obituary in the newspaper also did not reveal any new information about her career.

 

My research at the University Archives of the University of California at Berkeley confirmed that she had been enrolled, originally as a special student, and had earned a bachelor’s degree in the College of Social Sciences and not in architecture. How was it possible that a woman who had studied to become a teacher was able to fulfill the requirements for an architectural license? Since her files were lost at the California Architects Licensing Board, there is no record of her experience in architecture, a prerequisite for being licensed. Her transcripts from the University reveal that, from the very beginning of her studies, she had taken architecture and drawing classes along with English, German, French, Mathematics and Pedagogy. After her graduation in December of 1898, she continued through 1904-05 as a graduate student at the College of Social Sciences and took classes related to the practice of architecture such as civil engineering and architectural drawing. However, she did not receive a graduate degree.

Olander House, San Francisco
Olander House, San Francisco

So far, her known work consists of three houses. A friend who researches old building contracts had found her name but had not immediately recognized it as a woman's name as the first name was abbreviated. The first house was built in 1905 on Merritt Street which later became part of Market Street, for Mrs. Winifred McKeown, a widow. The second house at 68 Palm Street in San Francisco was designed for Margaret Doyle, a teacher and probably a colleague of Ella Castelhun. It was originally a one-story cottage, which was raised a few years later and a second story was added underneath at street level. The building permit for the enlargement of the cottage does not indicate that Ella Castelhun was involved. In 1907 Ella Castelhun designed a third house at 265-67 Lexington Street for Mrs. Mathilda Olander. Having designed and built three houses does not seem to amount to much but Ella Castelhun might have designed more buildings or alterations to existing houses which are hard to trace.

Why is Ella Castelhun worth being mentioned and her work documented? Not many people know that women have been practicing architecture in California since the turn of the 19th century. Documenting their work and life will enrich our knowledge about professional women in the early part of the 20th century.  It will expand the scope of history of architecture with a focus on the entrance of women into the field of architecture and the inclusion of ordinary architects and their work. In the last decades, Julia Morgan became well known as the architect of Hearst Castle, Asilomar, and YWCA buildings among her almost 800 projects. However, she was not the only woman architect and other women also tried to break into the field but were not as successful as Morgan. Ella Castelhun possessed a tremendous determination in pursuing her goal of becoming an architect. While working as a teacher at night, she studied at the University of California in Berkeley. Alone the commute from her residence in the Mission district of San Francisco (Valencia and 22nd Streets) to Berkeley was long and time-consuming as she probably went by streetcar to the Ferry Building, then by ferry to Oakland, and again by streetcar to the campus in Berkeley. Her family was not as wealthy and socially connected as Julia Morgan’s family was and thus she was not as successful in securing commissions from family and friends and in establishing her architectural practice. Ella had to earn her living and chose to do it as a teacher with a modest, yet reliable income, and thus could only dedicate her spare time to architecture.

 

This article was published in 

Guidelines: Newsletter for San Francisco City Guides and Sponsors, January 2005.

Photos by Inge Horton, except for the portrait of Ella Castehun, which is courtesy of Scott Trimble.