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What can I say about Hearst Castle? It’s beautiful... it’s magnificent... it’s overwhelming. It’s a monument to conspicuous consumption... proof that nothing exceeds like excess.... a grandiloquent testament to the sheer ostentation of wealth. It’s all that and more. And it gives a million visitors each year plenty to gawk at.
The essential background: William Randolph Hearst’s father struck it rich in the California gold rush. Hearst thus enjoyed a privileged upbringing that included extensive travel in Europe. He used his inherited wealth to found and acquire newspapers around the country, and to get elected twice to Congress. His publishing empire controlled 36 newspapers, and expanded to include numerous magazines and a Hollywood movie studio.
This accumulation of riches allowed Hearst to build his own version of the castles he had visited in Europe as a child. But grander and gaudier: What European castle includes a private airport, a wildlife park, and a zoo? To design and build his castle (which he called La Cuesta Encantada, The Enchanted Hill) Hearst chose Julia Morgan. A woman architect was unheard of in 1919, so it’s hard to say whether he hired her because of her genuine architectural gifts or because her unusual status made her crazy enough to take on a job that some architects insisted was impossible.
The result— unfinished when Hearst died in 1951— has an exterior inspired by a Spanish cathedral. Its 165 rooms include a dining room copied from a Gothic castle, an adjoining salon larger than all the combined rooms of a typical suburban American house, and an even larger cinema. Inside and out is a cloying clutter of priceless art that Hearst relentlessly collected from around the world.
Hearst’s wife didn’t like the castle or its remote location. She apparently wasn’t thrilled with William Randolph either, as she removed herself to the remote location of New York. Hearst had to content himself with the companionship of Marion Davies, a Hollywood starlet 34 years his junior. A continuing parade of invited celebrities and dignitaries who stayed in three adjacent guest houses also helped him avoid loneliness.
The castle has two Roman-inspired swimming pools. The outdoor one is the “Neptune Pool.” There were three versions of this pool, each one bigger and grander than its predecessor. The final version is 32 meters long and 28 meters wide, surrounded with statuary and a dressing room in the form of an ersatz temple.
The indoor pool is modeled after the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The walls, floor, and the pool itself are a continuous mosaic made of special two-centimeter square tiles. Although Hearst and his guests enjoyed the Neptune Pool, the indoor pool proved unpopular because of one historical inaccuracy. The Romans heated their baths with underground furnaces. Hearst’s imitation lacked that feature, which made its water too cold for comfort.
Today the Hearst Castle and its grounds form the Hearst San Simeon State Historical
Monument, a California State Park. It’s all on a hilltop overlooking the Central Coast town of
San Simeon, roughly midway between Los Angeles and
San Francisco. The Hearst Corporation deeded the
complex to the state in 1957. It surely makes good business sense for them to let the state
take care of the maintenance and upkeep of the property while the company collects a share of
It isn’t easy to take pictures of the castle. The park is accessible only by guided tour. Besides expertly dispensing commentary and history, the guides keep the assembly line of tour groups running at a brisk and efficient pace. Indoors, to preserve the art, most of the rooms are dimly lit and flash is not allowed. Also forbidden are tripods or any other kind of camera support.
Because of these limitations, I can’t include a picture of what, to me, offers the most interesting insight into Hearst as a person. On a wall in the billiard room of the main residence hangs a medieval mille fleurs (“a thousand flowers”) tapestry. The guides point out that Hearst considered this tapestry his most prized artistic possession. But in front of the tapestry is a rather ordinary couch, which covers the bottom quarter of this “most prized” treasure! When I asked about this, the guide assured me that the room layout is exactly as it was in Hearst’s time, based on contemporary photographs. Apparently even this, his favorite work of art, was only one more trophy he displayed to impress his guests— and, perhaps, to impress himself.
Through his castle Hearst crafted an image of himself. More than half a century after his
death, that image has become a legacy that visitors can appreciate. In contrast, the CEOs of
today’s large American corporations are completely consumed with the relentless creation of
something that is evanescent, neither goods nor services, and neither tangible nor visible. But
it’s nonetheless the most hallowed and treasured thing in the Universe: Shareholder Value. That
seems inimical to the sort of vision that creates something as enduring as Hearst’s “dream
castle.” I can only wonder what legacy those CEOs will leave, once they vest in whatever
compensation packages they might merit in an Afterlife.
Out of respect for the corporate successors of William Randolph Hearst— and their lawyers— I hereby acknowledge that “Hearst Castle®,” “La Cuesta Encantada®,” “The Enchanted Hill®,” and “Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument ®” are registered trademarks of Hearst Castle®/California State Parks.