On my recent girls’ trip to Central Coast, we had the opportunity to visit Hearst Castle, courtesy of Visit SLO CAL (thanks Berlin!). While I’d heard of the magnificent home built in the hills near San Simeon, and I was familiar with the family name (Hearst Communications publishes tons of magazines), I’d never ventured up north to see the place for myself.
As we wandered around the magnificent gardens and then took the Grand Rooms Tour, I became more curious about the man behind it all.
A Passion for the Land
William Randolph Hearst (who I’ll call WRH from here on out because I’m incredibly lazy) grew up visiting his family’s property in San Simeon. The Hearsts would camp on the ever-growing thousands of acres, and WRH grew up with a healthy appreciation of the land.
When his parents died, WRH inherited the land in 1919. He decided he wanted to build a “little bungalow” on the property. He figured it would take two years.
Hah. What he did was embark on a 28-year building adventure with architect Julia Morgan (go female architects!).
Turning Fantasy into Reality
Hearst’s “little bungalow” turned out to be quite a bit more. While it wasn’t exactly a castle, the mansion’s 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, and 19 sitting rooms certainly warranted the moniker.
Hearst would ship home art, sculptures, and design elements from his global travels and instruct Julia Morgan to find a place for them. In fact, the pier at San Simeon was built explicitly for his purchases to have an easy way to be shuttled to the house. How pre-Amazon!
The total build and expansion of the house cost $9 million over 28 years, and $3 million of that was art (of course, this was $9 million nearly 100 years ago, so today’s value would be substantially more!)
Here are a few highlights.
The Neptune Pool: Unfortunately, this awe-inspiring pool was under renovation when we visited, but you could still see how magnificent it was. Apparently, there were three iterations of a pool, and WRH kept expanding them. Because, you know, you want your dozens of rich and famous friends to have room to splash.
Around the pool are actual Roman temple ruins that WRH bought and shipped over, with Neptune and his Nymphs watching over the activities of guests like Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, and Carey Grant.
The Assembly Room: (a terrible name, in my mind) This was the gathering hall (larger than my house!) where WRH and his guests would play piano or cards, enjoy cocktails and appetizers before dinner, and bask in the glow of the Renaissance and Baroque tapestries hanging on the walls.
The Billiard Room: A popular feature for the well-heeled in the 1920s and ’30s, the Billiard Room features not one but two Art Deco pool tables: one French and one American. Apparently, they’re designed differently, and the French game is different.
The Theater: How cool to have your own posh theater in your house! It looked like it would seat about 50 people, and stunning gilt statues looked down from the walls.
The Roman Pool: On our way back to the bus, we were delighted to discover a second (indoor) pool modeled after ancient Roman baths. I yearned to take a dip!
The property also featured several guest “cottages” (again, bigger than my house!), a zoo, and ample gardens. We only toured the rooms above, but I would have loved to see the bedrooms upstairs.
The Man Behind it All
I was intensely curious about this man with such a creative vision. Sure, I didn’t care for how hodge-podge his decor was, and some of it was a bit stuffy for my taste (so when I have millions to design my own castle, you’ll see!). But he clearly was innovative. Not only did he become one of the best-known publishing magnates, but he also rubbed elbows with Hollywood’s glitterati of the Roaring ’20s.
Though he was married, his wife lived in New York City with their sons (she wasn’t a fan of living in such a remote location). Not to worry; WRH was far from lonely. Actress Marion Davies became his “companion” (uh huh.) and co-hosted his lavish parties at Hearst Castle.
Sadly, the Castle was never completely finished. I wonder what else he had in that fascinating head of his in terms of design…