Hearst Castle

San Simeon, California | C.1919

Photo Credit: Moa Boyer

William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon who played no small role in shaping twentieth-century media, was the only child of George and Phoebe Hearst. Shortly after William’s birth, his father purchased forty thousand acres of ranchland in San Simeon, California, to be used as a camping retreat.

Young William was given extraordinary opportunities throughout his life, and distinguished himself by not wasting them. At ten years old, his mother took him on a grand tour of Europe for a year and a half. Inspiration was planted by the grandeur of the castles he saw, along with the array of architectural styles and artwork he absorbed. This experience fueled his lifelong aspiration to recreate such majesty for himself, and Hearst Castle became the realization of this dream.

In 1919, as a fifty-six-year-old owner of a media empire—including newspapers, magazines, and film studios—William walked into Julia Morgan’s office. Morgan, forty-seven, was a pioneer herself. Called “America’s first truly independent female architect” by her biographer, she was the first woman to enroll in the architecture department at Paris’s School of Beaux-Arts, and the first to create her own practice back out West. Hearst wanted her help in building a more comfortable outpost on the camping grounds of his youth.

Nothing if not ambitious, Hearst’s initial vision expanded into La Cuesta Encantada (“The Enchanted Hill”), more commonly referred to as “the ranch,” an estate encompassing more than 165 rooms, including several libraries, pools, a banquet hall, and even an airstrip. Its gardens occupied more than 5 million square feet.

Hearst’s bungalow became a castle, or—to his mind—a museum of his collections. Since childhood, he’d had a manic compulsion to accumulate treasures. Morgan was there to help him place paneling, entire monasteries, fireplaces, and the medieval tithe barn that he had acquired in Western Europe. Together, the unlikely pair went on to spend decades filling his estate with an estimated 25,000 global artifacts, including thirty painted ceilings from Renaissance Italy and Spain.

As Morgan orchestrated the development, Hearst continued to reside there, hosting extravagant soirees and spending lavishly—even building a private power plant—to ensure that the Who’s Who of the nation could observe the wonderland he had created.

The main reception room boasts a ceiling moved from an Italian palazzo and paneling that’s actually a concealed door of an elevator that goes to Hearst’s third-floor Gothic suite. He loved surprising guests by entering unannounced. Such rooms are so similar to those found in European castles that set designers for Harry Potter used them as inspiration for Hogwarts.

As for the outside, its palm trees, mountain ranges, and views of the water all serve as postcards of the California ideal. The tennis courts are perhaps the estate’s most modest feature. Beyond them are stables to breed Arabian horses and an impressive zoo—though most of the animals, such as the elephant, are gone. Zebras, elk, sheep, and goats still roam freely.

One hundred telephones were placed around the premises so Hearst would never be out of touch. He even had one installed behind a tree, to enable him to keep up with business mid–horseback ride or post-swim. It took three tries to get his renowned Neptune Pool just right; it was twice enlarged and then extended a third time to host an imported Roman temple facade. The pool, which holds over 300,000 gallons of water, also features a group sculpture depicting The Birth of Venus.

In 1947, Hearst’s ailing health forced him to leave the “ranch,” and he passed away in 1951. In 1958 the palace was designated a California state park. While it was never completely finished, it stands as an unmatched achievement, one that guest George Bernard Shaw identified as “what God would have built if he had had the money.”

📖 Full Story Page 33

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