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Castles in the US? Whatever next – The Hearst Castle

It might not be the oldest, the most famous or the biggest. But it is one of California's must-see sights - the magnificent Hearst Castle.

semi-overcast 28 °C

Yes, that’s right. You could say I am one of these lucky girls who get their breakfast in bed each morning. Occasionally it constitutes of a cup of tea and more often than not it includes something a bit more substantial. All in all, it is fairly reliable and always comes with the added benefit of being delivered by my very own boyfriend. Aaaaaaah, I hear you say. And you would be right. Even though there are the approximately 300 days each year I am not at home due to work or we get up so late (especially after a night out) that breakfast is skipped altogether and we head directly for lunch. But hey, what are few days between friends.
The beautifully maintained grounds of the Hearst Castle, California, US

The beautifully maintained grounds of the Hearst Castle, California, US


Despite my proficiency at receiving food and drinks in bed, it was bit odd when after a night in the White Water Inn, we were woken up by a gentle knock on our door at 8am. Whilst we vaguely remembered being asked the night before what we would like for breakfast, none of us was quite with it when the push came to shove. Not ones to be easily overcome by surprise, it took us about two seconds to recover, exchange dazed looks, retrieve Duke’s boxers and extract the breakfast tray from a chirpy-looking lady before settling in for our morning feast. Needless to say, tasks following the ‘exchange of dazed looks’ were solely performed by the Duke.

Still in bed, we poured over our, by now impressive, collection of maps and information leaflets and plotted the next steps. First of all, we wanted to see the Hearst Castle. Previous night we briefly toyed with the idea of having a look around Cambria’s arts and crafts shops, but that turned out to be a no-go since they only open 10.30am ish. So many places and so little time! To make matters worse, the Duke’s berry constantly reminded us that our roadtrip was (far too quickly) coming to an end and in two days, we had to be back in the Napa Valley to collect the Duke’s jacket and passport. Having to choose, we picked the Hearst Castle.
The Neptune Pool built in an imposing Greek style at the Hearst Castle, California, US

The Neptune Pool built in an imposing Greek style at the Hearst Castle, California, US


Pleased with ourselves that we found the visitor car park without any major difficulties, the confusion started to set in. Coming from Europe, castles are generally quite big which consequently makes them easily spotable. Where we were, there was no castle, no drawbridge and not even an obvious path leading to any of the above. We wanted answers and we wanted them now. As usual, the explanation was not too far, or more accurately just above our heads. Our good old coastal cloud was once again out and about, covering many of the hills, one of which was decorated with the famous Hearst Castle. Right. There’s nothing like sightseeing with a rain jacket, especially when the sight’s allegedly fantastic views are obscured by a cover of stratus. Our only hope – the castle is high enough to be above the clouds.

At the office, we indulged ourselves by purchasing tickets for not one but two different tours. It’s not like we live just round the corner now, is it. As the Bulgarian proverb says: “Seize the opportunity by the beard, for it is bald behind.” The ticket office was by no means crowded and even our bus to the castle was leaving in a few minutes so happiness all around. One of the nice things about the bus tour to the top, and as we later found out, also the journey back, is that it is accompanied by a recorded talk about the castle, its impressive grounds and Mr. Hearst himself. But before I take you through the castle, let me introduce you to its founder.
Casa Del Monte with beautiful flowering bush climbing up its fasade, Hearst Castle, California, US

Casa Del Monte with beautiful flowering bush climbing up its fasade, Hearst Castle, California, US


William Randolph Hearst was a Murdoch-style entrepreneur who made his multimillion fortune in the publishing business. Kicked out of Harvard in his early twenties, he seized the opportunity to get one of his father’s underperforming newspapers back on track and never looked back. Inquisitive and adventures by heart, Hearst was a visionary and doer who never missed a chance to capitalize on the latest technology trends. He was, however, also a keen collector of art and antiques, of which the Hearst castle is a great testament. No stranger to blowing massive chunks of his fortune on reclaimed ceilings, century old tapestries or marble statues from Europe, the castle hosts many historical treasures that would have otherwise ended up as a landfill, courtesy of European modernization at the time. A passion that probably originated when he was ten years old travelling in Europe with his mother. That brings me to the history of his parents, which was no less interesting than his own.

Hearst’s father spent close to ten years in virtual poverty, working as a miner without any major luck. His fortunes have changed dramatically when, thanks to his geology background, he found what he believed was silver ore. Leaving skeptics behind, he made the dangerous journey across the High Sierras to the coast, packing his horses with tons of seemingly worthless rock. Luckily for him, his instincts were right and so it came to pass that Mr. Hearst senior became a multimillionaire, marrying a rather gorgeous and very sophisticated lady teacher in a quick succession. William’s mother was an ambitious and smart woman who probably very much helped to shape his attitude to women, recognizing them as equal and later on being one of the first employers who nominated women into high positions in his enterprises. Now back to the castle.
Castle gardens decorated with antient marble statues and flowering bushes, Hearst Castle, California, US

Castle gardens decorated with antient marble statues and flowering bushes, Hearst Castle, California, US


Interestingly enough, even though Hearst loved the area around San Simeon with its extensive grounds belonging to his family, his parents were not very forth when it came to letting little Willie loose on them. Perhaps suspecting his megalomaniac tendencies, they preferred to keep him in check and any attempts he might have made to domesticate the Simeon hills were deterred. Well, at least that was the case until the death of Hearst senior. Little by little, Hearst junior was tired of camping during his visits to San Simeon, resulting in the inevitable: the fantastically over the top Hearst Castle. That’s right. Even though the initial idea was apparently much more humble. Hearst envisaged a small but comfortable house he could stay in during his visits. If I knew you could all just get up right now and have a look at this little pad, I would stop writing immediately and let you see for yourselves. But because that’s quite unlikely, I will tell you what we saw.

Kudos to Hearst, to realize his ambition, he enlisted the help of the first woman to ever receive a certificate in architecture from the Ecole Nationale et Speciale des Beaux-Arts in Paris (basically the Oxford of architecture schools), Julia Morgan. This is how a 30 years long partnership between two remarkable people started. Known to Hearst through his mother, Julia Morgan was perhaps the only person who could have established and maintained a working professional relationship with notoriously excitable and fickle dreamer, devise architecturally sound solutions to building in a tricky terrain and closely manage the construction of one of the most magnificent places in the US, whilst also having a day job.
One of many gorgeous marble statues in the gardens

One of many gorgeous marble statues in the gardens


Although the life of Julia Morgan is equally interesting as the life of WR Hearst, one of the things we learnt during our tour was the abysmal, and to us not really understandable, exclusion of this pioneering woman from the US school system reference books. Not wanting to knock the contributions of i.e. Paris Hilton to the intellectual development of US society, could it be that there are benefits to be realized by introducing the young and impressionable to slightly more accomplished role models? I shall say no more.

Throughout the creative process with never ending design alterations, initial holiday home plans morphed into a grandiose church-front castle with three 10+ bedroom self contained guest houses, a gold plated indoor swimming pool, Greek-style outdoor pool, hectares of flowering gardens, miles long horse racing pergola and of course, an absolute must – the private zoo. Excuse our initial skepticism but The Duke and I come from countries where castles were way of life for centuries, which means people learnt how to do them well. No wonder than we expected a kitsch concussion of tasteless antiques in equally style-free building, shamelessly calling itself castle whilst we ‘in the know’ would beg to differ. I am glad to say we were proved wrong and Hearst Castle truly is a fine specimen of a castle, albeit ala America. Our appreciation of this hot spot was also helped by the appearance of the much prayed-for sunshine. Hallelujah.
Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California, US

Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California, US


Rich in tasteful detail yet functional, the interiors of the main castle do not betray that the entire building is made of steel-enforced concrete, making it fire and earthquake proof. A nice touch by Julia Morgan. The antique collection is enough to keep the curator of Louvre up all night, the pools are to die for, the gardens cleverly spill around the buildings in arrays of flowers sprinkled by the occasional million dollar marble statues, and all that is beautifully enhanced by the most stunning 360 degrees views. You’re probably thinking, where’s the catch. Well, there isn’t one. Unless you count the tiny detail that the castle never actually got finished. Not that it makes it any less impressive. But since you are probably dying to know, I shall tell you why. Just like many of us creative geniuses (ahemp ahemp), it is more about the journey than the finished product. Mr. Hearst started building his castle when he was 56 years old. Now, put that into the context of the US life expectancy in the 1920s which was 55.5 years - he was slightly past the sell by date when he kicked off this project. Not a major drawback in itself. Now pair it up with Hearts’s tendency to treat the construction of his castle and in fact the entire grounds as a game of Lego. This resulted in a never-ending iterative process that went something like this:
Looking across the Neptune pool towards Casa del Sol, Hearst Castle, California, US

Looking across the Neptune pool towards Casa del Sol, Hearst Castle, California, US


1. Julia Morgan draw plans (often including interior details, colour schemes, tapestry selections, wooden carvings on balustrades, etc. )
2. Mr. Hearts reviewed them and suggested changes
3. Julia Morgan re-drew plans
4. Mr. Hearst reviewed them and approved
5. Julia Morgan started building
6. Julia Morgan received late night fax from Mr. Hearst with his latest set of improvements
7. Julia Morgan re-drew her plans and started building
8. Mr. Hearst had another idea
9. Julia Morgan re-drew plans, demolished whatever was already in place that didn’t quite fit with Hearst’s latest and greatest and re-commenced building
10. Mr. Hearst was happy
11. Week later, Mr. Hearst had another idea
12. Julia Morgan re-drew, demolished, re-built

You get the idea. No wonder than that many parts of the castle went through a number of makeovers before settling on the present form. This is also the case with for example the magnificent Neptune pool, which modestly started as a small family-only pool and a few re-constructions later ended up looking like the Brad Pitt of water basins. Interestingly enough, the constant changes of mind and stream of communication between Julia Morgan and WR Hearst is well documented in the preserved correspondence, some of which is on display in the visitor centre. One can read through chains of letters and telegrams between these two and only marvel Miss Morgan didn’t turn into a character that would make the creators of Texas Chain Saw Massacre blush.
One of the guest houses called Casa del Sol, Hearst Castle, California, US

One of the guest houses called Casa del Sol, Hearst Castle, California, US


When the Castle started to be habitable, Hearst installed his hot young mistress Marion Davies in one of its comfortable rooms. Quite a bold move considering he was married to Millicent with whom he had 5 sons. A 20 years Hearst’s junior, Millicent was a showgirl from New York when they met. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for Hearst, she never liked the ‘country’ feel of San Simeon and preferred to stay in New York. Not that surprisingly, the couple eventually grew apart, although they never divorced. Marion Davies on the other hand, 34 years Hearst’s junior, was a young successful actress who loved the Castle and lived there until Hearst’s death. You probably think ‘what a gold-digger. Apparently not. Firstly, being a successful actress in her own right, her income was quite substantial making her financially and professionally independent. Secondly, her relationship with Hearst was described as that of soalmates. And thirdly, it was actually Hearst who borrowed a million dollars from Davies to cover his debts (presumably from buying antiques) and never paid her back.

During its heyday, Hearst Castle was the prime entertainment spot for the crème de la crème of the US society. Hearst liked to surround himself with interesting characters and those with potential, often resulting in stimulating combinations of guests patronizing the castle. Walt Disney, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gabel, Cary Grant but also Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw could be spotted sipping on martinis in the lavish lounge, playing tennis at one of the private courts or dipping the toe in its deluxe swimming pools. Hearst, conscious of his own privileges in life, spent considerable time and fortune enabling others to experience what he loved. Perhaps one of the most extravagant antics he used to engage in was to invite select few on an annual journey around the World, all paid for of course.
Stunning views from top of the San Simeon hill - one of the favorite parts of WR Hearst about the area, California, US

Stunning views from top of the San Simeon hill - one of the favorite parts of WR Hearst about the area, California, US


Needless to say, The Duke and I were positively dazzled by the castle, its beautiful grounds but also the interesting life of Mr. Hearst and of those he liked to surround himself with. Set in a country where castles and history in general (non-native American history of course) are hard to come by, the experience was even more impressive. And there was more. When we found ourselves back at the visitor centre, it was past lunchtime. I know you think – so what. We were ravenous. Before we could even think about enjoying the ‘Hearst Castle – Building the Dream’ documentary shown in the resident cinema, we had to be fed. And fed we got. Oh my. Nobody has ever eaten more delicious beef sandwich than thy who tasted the Hearst ranch beef stew. We were in heaven. Perfectly seasoned juicy mountain of shredded beef was thrust upon an inadequately looking baguette, rightfully looking like it cannot take the strain of hosting such a delicacy. You might be thinking I am exaggerating and this time, you would be wrong. I am salivating just writing this down.

Although paling next to the beef sandwich, the movie ‘Building the Dream’ is a nicely done documentary about the Hearst castle and life of one of the most prominent entrepreneurs in California’s recent history. Great end to our brief visit at San Simeon, the curtain went down, we waved good-bye to the sandwich stand and after finally locating our car, pressed on driving north on highway #1.

Posted by TheDukes 08:09 Archived in USA Tagged california hearst_castle san_simeon wr_hearst

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