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Mills College, sprawled over 135 acres in the San Francisco Bay Area, was originally founded in 1852 as the Young Ladies Seminary in Benicia. Intending to expand the institution to educate the daughters of western frontier families, Cyrus and Susan Mills purchased the Seminary in 1865. In 1871, the couple moved the Seminary to a 60-acre site in the verdant foothills of Oakland. Chartered in 1885, it was the first women’s college west of the Rockies. In 2022, Mills College merged with Northeastern University, thus ending a 170-year status as a women’s institution.
In 1902, railroad industrialist and rancher David Hewes donated a set of ten bronze bells to Mills College. Originally cast in Cincinnati, Ohio, for a California display at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and also presented at the Midwinter Fair in San Francisco the following year (the bells won medals at both events), they were then purchased by Hewes. Without a suitable place for the bells, the College referred to them as the “silent ten.” The first president of Mills College, Susan Mills, facilitated the creation of the bell tower through funds made available by mining magnate and real estate developer Francis Marion “Borax” Smith and his wife, Mary. Mills hired Julia Morgan, not only with the hope of supporting a budding woman architect for a women’s college but also because Morgan came with credentials befitting the project.
A native Californian, Morgan studied civil engineering at University of California, Berkeley, where she met architect Bernard Maybeck, who became her mentor. After graduating in 1894, Morgan assisted Maybeck with building projects before becoming the first woman admitted to the architecture program at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, earning her certificate in 1902. Upon her return to the United States, Morgan worked with San Francisco architect John Galen Howard on several Berkeley campus buildings for the University of California, including the Greek Theatre (1903), a large, cast-in-place concrete amphitheater that fueled Morgan’s exploration of the medium. Morgan became the first woman architect licensed in California in 1904.
The bell tower owed its distinctive design to its reinforced concrete construction, at the time a relatively novel building technique. Morgan’s selection of this material was spurred by her civil engineering background, Paris education, and experience in concrete; she worked on the tower alongside builder Bernard Ransome, son of the leading reinforced concrete practitioner in the United States. Unlike contemporary campus towers with square bases, El Campanil’s rectangular footprint (excluding the buttresses along the short sides) is almost twice as wide as it is deep, measuring 25 by 12 feet. The result is a tall and slender structure that is still in scale with Mills Hall, located across from the tower at the outer edge of the Oval, the oldest landscape feature of the campus. Morgan oriented El Campanil due north at an angle to the Oval, in the midst of riparian oaks and eucalyptus trees. Revealing her regional sensibilities, Morgan’s design is derived from the California missions and incorporates Spanish vernacular elements that adorned simple adobe and wood frame buildings in California. The natural gray color of exposed concrete is juxtaposed with dark wood and red clay tiles.
El Campanil has five stories, each gradually diminishing in height to culminate in a red clay–tiled gable roof held by wood brackets. Buttresses capped with the same clay tiles step back, connecting three broad tiers marked by an impressive clock at the base of the top tier. The upper three stories showcase bronze bells hung from delicately crafted timber beams spanning arched openings. Wood benches flank the main entrance, which is embellished by a door that was reportedly brought from an old Spanish church in Mexico, its lock and nails now aged with a green patina. Morgan’s custom-designed vases, inspired by those at the Alhambra in Granada, stood perched on a parapet enclosing the entrance terrace, removed later for access.
As was custom, the bells were named at the dedication ceremony on April 14, 1904. Donor David Hewes suggested they be named after the graces of the spirit in Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The largest bell, framed by the largest arched opening of the tower and weighing 2,500 pounds, is named Love; the smallest bell, weighing 250 pounds, is named Meekness. The others are named Faith, Hope, Peace, Joy, Gentleness, Goodness, Self-Control, and Long Suffering. Together, the ten bells weigh five tons and each has its name carved above each bell. The original clock, restored in 2004, regulates the “Westminster Chimes.” Once adorning the facade was a bronze tablet that read, “In loyal remembrance of those who by tongue or pen, by generous gift or noble deed, have aided woman on her upward way, these bells chime on.”
Incorrectly called the first concrete reinforced structure built west of the Mississippi (a tablet adjacent to the entrance door also declares this), the freestanding bell tower was, in fact, one of the first of its kind in the country. Regardless, its engineering and construction was no small feat: the tower survived the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires. Its escape without any structural damage became one of the primary factors that propelled Morgan’s career upward. The Mills Board of Trustees hired her to assess buildings on the campus damaged by the earthquake and thereafter she submitted a report with her recommendations.
In addition to the bell tower, Morgan designed several other structures for Mills College between 1904 and 1924. These were Carnegie Hall (the Margaret Carnegie Library), Kapiolani Cottage, and the Student Union; a gymnasium complex that has since been replaced by a new structure and plaza; and the Ming Quong Home for Chinese Girls (1924), which was originally outside the college boundary but later included in the campus as Alderwood Hall and now Julia Morgan School for Girls. Morgan also rendered a design for the Ethel Moore Memorial Hall (1920), a dormitory that is credited to Walter Ratcliffe; it is unclear whether he used Morgan's designs.
Morgan’s architecture shaped the early development of Mills College and El Campanil contributes to the iconic historic core from that period. Her talent gave the “silent” bells a powerful location from which to resonate throughout the Mills College campus for more than a century. Over the years, additions to the tower include the brick paved plaza and steps leading up to its base. The once lush backdrop of trees have now thinned out. While visitors have unrestricted access to the Mills campus and El Campanil, the tower interior is not open to the public. In 2014, Julia Morgan became the first woman to be awarded, posthumously, the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal.
Boutelle, Sara Holmes. Julia Morgan, Architect. New York: Abbeville Press, 1995.
Ito, Susan. “Julia Morgan at Mills.” Mills Quarterly (Winter 2004): 14.
Kastner, Victoria. Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2022.
Keep, Rosalind A. Fourscore and Ten years: A History of Mills College Oakland. Mills College, 1946.
May, Vonne Marie, Robert Sabbatini, and Karen Fiene. Celebrating the Cultural Landscape Heritage of Mills College. Oakland, CA: Mills College, 2008.
McNeill, Karen. “Julia Morgan: Gender, Architecture, and Professional Style.” Pacific Historical Review 6, no. 2 (2007): 229–267.
McNeill, Karen. “Women Who Build: Julia Morgan and Women’s Institutions.” California History 89, no. 3 (2012): 42–74.
Sood, Sandhya. “Eye to Eye with Julia Morgan.” Berkeley Daily Planet, 2013.
Sood, Sandhya. “Julia Morgan FAIA: California’s Gold.” American Institute of Architects California Council, June 23, 2014. www.aiacc.org.
Wilson, Mark A. Julia Morgan, Architect of Beauty. Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2007.
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