William Randolph Hearst’s Legacy

December 14, 2010

Hello again my friends. Sorry for my absence, but I have returned married and fresh from my honeymoon. I have not yet decided if this is the place to share my wedding photos, but I may. Stay tuned. For now, I would like to relate my recent visit to Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. My new husband and I were staying in Carmel, just two hours north, and took a day trip along the coastal highway to see this magnificent early 20th century castle. The coastal highway photos will make their own post, but as we took the art and architecture tour, I have some phenomenal details to share with you.

In case you aren’t familiar with William Randolph Hearst or his 90,080 square foot estate, complete with 56 bedrooms, 41 fireplaces, 19 sitting rooms, 2 pools, and 102 bathrooms, here’s a little history. Hearst was born into the wealthy Hearst family, but made his own fortune through the numerous newspapers he owned. These included the San Francisco Examiner, the New York Journal, Motor magazine, and his publishing company, Hearst Magazines. Hearst also produced over 100 films in his lifetime and was a big name in early television.

Hearst Castle, active from 1919-1947, was originally a small project begun by his parents, George and Phoebe Hearst. When they died and William Randolph took over, he made the San Simeon property his pet project, spending more time and money here than in any of his many other estates. His properties included Babicora, a 1 million acre cattle ranch in Mexico; the 67,000 acre estate of Wyntoon in northern California; St. Donat’s Castle in Wales; various commercial and residential properties throughout the U.S.; and the 270,000 acres in San Simeon, upon which Hearst Castle resided.

The castle uses Mediterranean Revival architecture on the outside, comparable to a medieval Spanish cathedral. It comprises several buildings, including the Casa Grande and three guest houses. The house sits atop a mountain, accessible only by a 5-mile harrowing bus ride, which winds its way around the hillside. The hillside was used for Hearst’s personal zoo, the prize of which were his bears, but which also included zebras, kangaroos, ostriches, camels, and giraffes, among others. The view from the castle is spectacular, looking over the Pacific and San Simeon on one side, and over the mountainous expanse of Hearst’s property the other. In the photo above, Hearst’s property line was beyond the furthest mountain visible.

The inside of the castle is largely decorated with Renaissance and Medieval wall coverings, linens, paintings, and furniture. Most of the pieces were bought at auctions in New York and California by Hearst, who compiled an enormous warehouse from which he furnished Hearst Castle. There is very little order amongst the relics inside the castle: Hearst mixed mythological, religious, and historical pieces indiscriminately throughout each room, creating a decidedly eclectic Renaissance-era decor.

Perhaps my favorite room was Hearst’s library, which housed, in addition to hundreds of classic books, an astounding collection of Ancient Greek pottery and sculpture. These pieces mingle with the books and bring several eras of history together. In Hearst’s day, the library was open to his guests, who could check books out with the librarian and read them anywhere on the property.

Hearst brought many significant guests of the early 20th century to stay in his home. Big names included Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. Although Hearst was married, he primarily visited the castle with his mistress, Marion Davies. Organization and design of the castle was overseen by San Francisco architect, Julia Morgan, who not only filled Hearst with its treasures, but also oversaw sleeping arrangements for guests.

Today, the castle is a California State Historical Monument. Much of it can be visited by the public year round. However, the family and Hearst Corporation retain rights to the home, using it for private functions occasionally. The castle, including the heated outdoor Neptune pool, can also be rented out for a mere $12,000 a head. Our tour guide shared that a perk of working there is swimming in the pool for free at their summer staff party.

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