Historic campus building reopens in UC Botanical Garden

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Amanda Hart/Staff

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After a year’s worth of relocation and reconstruction, the historic Julia Morgan Hall has reopened at the UC Botanical Garden.

The rustic, cabin-like building designed by renowned architect Julia Morgan now rests comfortably in the campus’s 34-acre garden of more than 13,000 different species of plants. Known as Girton Hall throughout its time on campus, the building was originally situated north of the Haas School of Business, and its former space will be used to expand the Haas complex and the school’s MBA program.

A state and national landmark, Girton Hall was built in 1911 as a facility for senior female university students and served this purpose until the 1960s, when it became a child care center.

After it was decided that Girton Hall’s new home would be at the garden, the four different parts of the building were transported to the site in January of 2013. The next several months were spent reassembling and adjusting the building to make it comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act’s access guidelines.

The majority of the building remains intact, such as the original windows, which shimmer from their age. Its outside deck was also extended to reach out and overlook acres of unraveling fields and rolling hills, interrupted only by dirt trails weaving through the greenery.

“It’s kind of magical,” said Paul Licht, the garden’s director, describing how well Morgan’s architecture fit into the garden’s ambiance. “Julia had a great eye for building warm, friendly places like this.”

Licht said that in addition to the physical refurbishing of the building, he wanted to restore its use as a social venue. According to Licht, renting out the building will help generate revenue to keep the garden open.

Since reopening in October, Girton Hall has hosted many social gatherings, including a wedding, memorials, seminars and now a five-week botanical art exhibition. Currently, the building houses two different collections that display renderings of plants that can be found in the garden.

The larger collection is a traveling gallery of professional botanical artworks on display until early February and is the last of the international showcase’s multiple stops, with Girton Hall as its only West Coast venue.

Selected by the American Society of Botanical Artists, the collection displays 44 artworks, the majority of them rendered by women, said Catherine Watters, a botanical artist and curator of the international exhibition. Featured artworks are inspired by the native plant discoveries of John and William Bartram, who discovered, propagated and named East Coast plant life in the 18th century.

“I think it could not be a better marriage, because the building has that wonderful history of being a women’s club on campus,” Watters, whose work is displayed in the collection, said. “For these artworks to be in Julia Morgan Hall, designed by a woman for women, and to now be showing a collection of mainly women artists is just an interesting combination.”

In the attached sunroom is a smaller, nonjuried collection that features 37 works by local artists and was curated by the Northern California Society of Botanical Artists.

“The dark wood makes a wonderful backdrop for artwork,” said Sally Petru, a local botanical artist who organized the Northern California exhibition, which has normally run in the garden’s conference center for the past five years. “The previous building was fine, but how much more elegant can you get if you’re in a Julia Morgan building?”

Bo Kovitz is a news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @beau_etc.