Hearst Castle is not Xanadu and William Randolph Hearst was not Citizen Kane. Assumption is the mother of all errors. Driving up pacific Coast Highway from LA to Ragged Point, I was curious to visit W.R. Hearst’s extravagant folly on top of a hill above the tiny harbour of San Simeon.
Hearst’s father, George, had made a fortune through mining in the 1860s, then he made his own fortune through newspapers. He invested his many dollars in land. One such acquisition was a 250,000 acre ranch just south of Big Sur. As a boy, W.R. played, rode and learnt to love that landscape. His mother, Phoebe, one of California’s most generous philanthropists was highly educated and cultured. She imbued William with a fascination for art and architecture. She had mentored and commissioned America’s first leading lady architect. Julia Morgan had trained at Berkeley and the Beaux Arts in Paris in 1896, when she also travelled around Europe. Julia was aged 47 and at the height of her career when Phoebe died of flu in the epidemic of 1919.
Until then, the ranch above San Simeon was wild west country and family visits were in tents with camp fire cooking. One imagines, more like turn of the century glamping? Phoebe had kept a tight rein on William’s spending.
On inheriting the family fortune, W.R. wanted to build. He commissioned Julia Morgan to design a modest house, a bungalow, to enjoy the landscape and views of the ocean on the top of his favourite hill. Even a modest construction, high on a hill many miles from anywhere, would have been a logistical achievement. What evolved over the following 27 years is remarkable.
Hearst, flamboyant, insanely wealthy, in colourful suits and hand-painted ties would become patron and collaborator with the serious, prim perfectionist, Ms. Morgan. She would patiently and brilliantly respond to continuous changes and ever more grandiose ideas, to build his dream. Through regular meetings, thousands of letters, sketches and immense vision, the building evolved. William himself would sketch ideas and sign them ‘Viollet le Duc Hearst’, the nineteenth century French conservationist that he greatly admired.
At the height of his wealth, post World War 1 Europe was impoverished and many aristocratic families were selling their art collections and built heirlooms. Through the auction houses of New York, Hearst bought prolifically. The contents of French chateaux, Italian palaces and especially Spanish castles, all shipped from Europe to New York then by freight train to the West Coast; art, artefacts and huge sections of buildings. Part of Julia Morgan’s improbable task was to record, collate and incorporate this obsessive collection of impeccable architectural salvage into a cohesive whole.
On arriving at the California State Welcome Centre, (the property was gifted by the Hearst Corporation in 1957) it might be assumed Hearst Castle would be at best a hodgepodge, at worst vulgar; Trump in Californian imported Renaissance. How wrong assumptions can be.
Indulgent it is. A triumph of creative, painstaking architectural invention and detail, it most certainly is. Ms. Morgan was an exceptional character and architect. Imagine the logistics of building a road up a mountain miles from anywhere, employing (and retaining) over 100 workmen, with burning heat in summer and wind and rain storms in winter. Ms. Morgan directed works from a safari style tent. She was responsible for recruiting the workforce, interior design, shipping, landscaping, finance and the welfare of Hearst’s growing menagerie of wild animals. Influenced by certain English country houses, Hearst collected animals from around the world with characteristic verve.
Bears, polar bears and the big cats had proper zoo enclosures. Roaming wild across the ranch lands were not just indigenous bison, cattle and deer, but zebra, elk, yak, llama, kangaroo, ostrich and giraffe.
Until mains electricity arrived in 1924, power was generated by the site’s own hydro-electric plant and reservoir.
Because of earthquakes and forest fires, the construction is of reinforced concrete, some stone veneered, some rendered, some left raw. The inclusion of historic features into the composition is fanciful, but it works. The influences and component elements from European architectural history, blended with skilful contemporary Arts and Crafts design and workmanship is a revelation. The detail that Julia Morgan patiently fused into the whole composition is joyous.
By 1926, the castle and guest houses were sufficiently complete to begin the entertaining for which the place became renowned. The house parties hosted by William with Marion Davies, his long-term lover and devoted starlet companion, mixed movie stars with politicians and writers; Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Bob Hope, Winston Churchill, H.G. Wells, P.G. Wodehouse and George Bernard Shaw, to name but a few of the fortunate to be entertained. The later was erroneously reported to have declared, “the way that god would have done it, if he’d had the money”.
Hearst Castle transcends assumption, it is still enchanted without the movie stars and wild animals. If you happen to be driving up Highway One, it really is worth a visit.