Wednesday, June 25, 2014


 Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California

Once upon a time, one of the richest and most powerful men in America built himself a castle. In the process, he practically dismantled Europe, crating up whole monasteries and medieval palaces and then reassembling them on a remote mountain top off the coast of California. And what a castle! It was not only his home, but a private museum filled with thousands of priceless antiques and architecture.

Hearst Castle: A Billionaire’s Pleasure Palace

On a recent weekend, my family and I drove from Los Angeles up the coast to Cambria where we spent the night at a rustic motel right across the street from one of California’s famous wild and untouched beaches. We had reservations for the following day to tour Hearst Castle, located 12 miles away in San Simeon. We wanted to be rested for what would be an all day experience, and even then, we wouldn’t begin to see it all.

We arrived early in the morning at the Visitor’s Center and were the first in line to clamor aboard one of the trams that would make the steep five mile trek up the mountain to the Castle. Hearst had chosen this impossibly remote place because his father George used to take him camping (on those rare occasions he spent any time with him at all) and their favorite campsite was the top of this steep mountain with its spectacular 180 degree view of the ocean. George Hearst, who made his fortune in mining, owned not only the mountain, but several thousand square miles of pristine California coastline as well. William Randolph, out of childhood nostalgia, decided to build a permanent camping site there, but one fit for a king.

An Awesome Al Roker Day!

I’d been to the Castle twice before and I knew the weather could be unpredictable. Being so close to the ocean it’s often foggy, windy, hazy or depressingly overcast. I hate taking pictures full of dull, grey skies so I crossed my fingers and made a silent prayer to the weather gods for a nice day. But what I got was something more—I got a miracle! There wasn’t a cloud anywhere to be seen: no California haze, no fog, no wind, no nothing. It was so clear, we could see for miles. We could not believe our luck.

(Al Roker, Weatherman for NBC, image courtesy of Google)

Even our guide was dumbstruck. Gathering us together for the tour, the first thing she said to us was, “I’ve never seen weather like this in all the years I’ve worked here! I don’t know who to thank for this incredible day, but…”

I started waving my hand and pointing at myself and hollered, “Me! You can thank me! I called my man Al Roker personally and requested it!” Al, you came through for me again!

 A spectacular day and equally spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean

The Castle

There are three available tours during the day and we’d signed up for two. The first tour took us through the main house, called Casa Grande; the second toured the grounds, visitor’s cottages and the two opulent swimming pools. As we wound our way through the Castle, our guide told us the extraordinary story of how and why it was built.

Before construction began in 1919, Hearst chose Julia Morgan as architect, designer and engineer to build his castle on a hill. The challenge for her was immense.  In addition to being a home, Hearst wanted to incorporate and showcase his collection of art and architectural salvage. To protect his priceless treasures against earthquakes, it needed to be built out of solid concrete, but it couldn't look like a bunker. Julia's task was to disguise it to look like stone, wood and other decorative materials. 

 Just a few of the priceless ceilings salvaged from palaces, monasteries and abbeys.

However, it was her knowledge of civil engineering that would come in most handy. Everything had to be shipped in, so before anything else, she had to have a dock built at the base of the mountain to accommodate large ships. Then the challenge was to get all that building material up to the top of a 1,600' rocky mountain that's out in the middle of nowhere. A road had to be constructed, five miles of it, snaking up the mountain with a grade capable of handling trucks piled high with ship loads of lumber, stone and concrete. The ridge had to be completely bull dozed, to flatten it and create terraces. Then truckloads of topsoil had to be hauled up so that acres of trees, shrubs and flowers could be planted. 

 Statuary in the gardens

Obviously, this task was going to take many years, and Hearst wanted to still “camp” there in the meantime. The original plans called for three visitor’s “cottages” to be constructed, each taking in a different view of the landscape. He and his family would live in one he called Casa del Monte, because of its view of the mountains, until the main building was completed. No expense was spared in these smaller homes either. Not as grand as the big house, they would still satisfy any Hollywood mogul anytime. All of the homes were designed in the Mediterranean style, including Casa Grande, Hearst’s name for the big house. Most Californians at the turn of the last century thought the style suited them the best. Laid back and informal, it invites cooling breezes and casual luxury. 

 Casa del Mar, guest house facing the Pacific Ocean

Hearst, the Back-story

Obscenely wealthy, W. R. was a billionaire in today’s money many times over. He got his start right out of college by becoming publisher of the San Francisco Examiner which his father owned. He discovered he loved the publishing business and started buying newspapers all over the US, which he used to voice his opinions and promote his political aspirations. Enormously influential, he knew everyone, from Presidents to kings. He could have anything that money could buy, but in the end, there were two things he couldn’t have: the Presidency and a divorce from his wife.

William Randolph Hearst always had an eye for the ladies, specifically show girls, much to the chagrin of his mother. He wasn’t much to look at, but he was rich and emanated power like an aphrodisiac, having no trouble attracting beautiful women. Against his mother’s wishes, he married Millicent, a chorus girl in 1903 and fathered five sons. But, as it often happens, he soon fell deeply in love with someone else--a very popular film star, Marion Davis. Millicent, being a Catholic, refused to give him a divorce, so he and Marion lived together openly for the rest of their lives.  Hearst’s glorified camp ground perched high on a remote California hill gave Marion and him the privacy to live and entertain their friends; friends who just happened to be the cream of Hollywood and Europe.

 Dining room where guests are provided with bottles of mustard and catsup. After all,
it was glorified camping!
Hollywood’s Home Away From Home

Most of Hearst and Marion’s friends were Hollywood types, actors, directors, studio owners etc. Hearst himself produced movies, mostly to showcase Marion, and they both felt the most at home with people from the film industry. Famous faces like Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, and Gary Cooper were frequent visitors. Churchill, Lindbergh, the Kennedy’s, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor also enjoyed the lavish accommodations. 

Billiards room decorated with medieval tapestries, fireplace and ceiling.

 Guests could use the huge library lined with priceless Grecian urns, attend the
full sized movie theater, or lounge in one of the many sitting rooms.

Among the several things provided for these famous people to enjoy while staying at the Castle were two Roman sized heated swimming pools. One is an indoor pool and is so opulent it takes your breath away; the other is outdoors and looks like Caesar swam there. There were miles of covered riding paths, a wild animal zoo, and several discreetly hidden places to sit and have some privacy. A Hollywood style movie theater played first run films every night, plus a fully stocked library and a billiards room provided the entertainment.

 The outdoor pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean

The heated indoor pool. Check out the hand carved marble railings.

The were two things Hearst would not tolerate, however: drinking too much and unmarried guests engaging in “hanky-panky”. Single men and women were strictly segregated and watched to make sure there was no sneaking around. Any attempt to break the rules meant a permanent ban from the Castle; ironic especially since Marion was a sad alcoholic and she and Hearst were not married.

Hearst the Hoarder

His mother, Phoebe Appleton Hearst, was William’s constant companion and influence as he grew up. It was she who introduced her young son to art and high culture on two tours of Europe. Perhaps in trying to recreate the wonder of those trips, Hearst began to buy everything he could get his hands on. He read art catalogs like dime store novels and purchased at least something every day. Soon he amassed warehouses full of art treasures, antiques and whole buildings: abbeys, monasteries, palaces and parts of palaces. But hardly any of this would end up in Hearst’s Castle. He preferred to buy all new stuff which he brought in by private rail cars. He bought medieval amour, the rooms of an entire seventeenth century French cloister, a sixteenth century fireplace, dismantled stone by stone to be reconstructed in one room of the Castle. He bought boat loads of furniture, tapestries, statuary, and the finest collection of Greek urns in existence for his library and much, much more.

Hearst's study where he ran his publishing empire and shopped for antiques every day.

 Hearst's bedroom

Old Buildings, New Life

Whether we can call Hearst a hoarder or just a compulsive shopper, in the end, he and others like him became conservators of these priceless treasures for us.  After WWI, all of Europe was for sale. Impoverished nobility had to liquidate everything they owned and wealthy Americans like Hearst bought it all up and shipped it to the U.S. Hearst had warehouses full of whole monasteries and abbeys, sometimes even forgetting where they were. Two of them eventually found new homes, one in California and one in Florida.

In 1931, W. R. bought a Spanish Benedictine Abbey for use in one his homes. As it often happened with him, he ran out of funds and ended up donating the dismantled pile of stones to the City of San Francisco to reconstruct into a museum. Unfortunately, the stones lay forgotten for years and many of them were damaged and lost. Finally in 1994, the stones were donated to the Brothers of the Abbey of Clairvaux for their new church. Last summer, my good friend, Kay took me to see it.

I hadn’t realized the scope of Hearst’s acquisitions and it was utterly fascinating to see this extraordinary medieval building being resurrected in the middle of a California vineyard. We were free to roam around; to go in and out of the newly polished stones and take all the pictures we wanted. Later, we bellied up to the wine bar and drank a glass of New Clairvaux wine made and served by the Brothers.

If you are ever in the area, you really must see what the Brother’s have done with the old place and help them out with a donation to finish the project. Oh yes, and do have a glass of their delicious wine.

Built in 1141 in the remote Spanish countryside, the Cistercian monastery quietly thrived until Hearst bought it at an art auction in 1925. Like Clairvaux, he had it entirely dismantled; the stones were labeled and numbered, and then shipped to a warehouse in New York to sit and gather dust. Only after his death in 1951 was it allowed to be sold to two real estate developers who had a vision for this masterpiece of architectural design, Bill Edgemon and Raymond Moss. They had the monastery painstakingly reconstructed and restored on a plot of land in Miami. Again, it was well worth the effort because the result is magnificent. Interestingly, Kay’s mom dated Bill Edgemon until he passed away. By all accounts, he was a fine man.

The Spanish Monastery, image courtesy of Google 

***Good Read: "The Chief" by David Nasaw. An excellent biography of William Randolph Hearst. 
Next time: Cornwall and the Cotswolds, Quintessentially Quaint!

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