When architect Julia Morgan took on the redesign and expansion of the modest, turn-of-the-century columbarium on the hill at the end of Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, she brought with her a small army of local artisans, architectural treasures from Europe, and her trademark eclectic vision.
The resulting winding walkways and terraced indoor gardens, designed with Spanish-Moorish Gothic flourishes reminiscent of Alhambra, makes for an exceptionally beautiful environment to house the dead.
The columbarium was founded in 1909 as a much smaller structure, but the growing population and popularity of cremation led to its expansion in 1928. The legendarily tireless Julia Morgan was California’s first licensed female architect, educated at University of California at Berkeley and L’École des Beaux-Arts in Paris before settling in the Bay Area. She was already engaged in a variety of projects, including William Randolph Heart’s “Castle” in San Simeon, but she attacked the new project with enthusiasm. She sent her artist and assistant Doris Day to Europe in search of antiquities to embellish her vision, and brought in local experts in concrete construction, mosaic work, and stained glass to bring it to life.
Thousands of tiny niches filled with urns, many shaped like books, surrounding gardens, and quiet patio-like rooms, give the impression of a vast, light-filled library.
More modern expansions add to the overall eclectic impression—from an area that was transformed from one of Oakland’s early trolley stations to Aztec-inspired additions made by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Aaron Green.
The Gregorian cloister holds pages of illuminated manuscripts from 1550, and the small bible collection contains a page from a 1453 Gutenberg Bible. The Chapel of the Chimes has a performing arts history and today the chapel is home to regular musical performances including Jazz music and winter and summer solstice performances.
Know Before You Go
Because of funeral services, access to the buildings that house the Julia Morgan Chapel and the Chapel of the Chimes, may not allow for visitations. Highly recommend picking up a map at either end of the complex, as the structure is a bit a rabbit's warren.
There is staff onsite should one need assistance in locating a particular section or entombment. Though there are elevators, not all spaces are handicap accessible.