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Sunday 3 Nov 2013
San Simeon, USA

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle is the dreamchild of William Randolf Hearst, millionaire newspaper tycoon, and San Francisco architect Julia Morgan.  The back story is as fascinating as the building itself.  

Hearst's father struck gold, so to speak, when he followed a hunch that the seam of iron ore he'd discovered was, in fact, silver.  He and a colleague transported 3000 tonnes of the ore across the mountains - a journey of nearly three months by mule train - in order to get it analysed.  Overnight, he became one of the richest men in America and set about buying up land along the coast and getting married.  His wife, Phoebe, was then just a school teacher, but became a fierce promoter of education, especially for girls.  The San Simeon Ranch became a firm favourite with a tent camp every summer.  Phoebe took their only child, William, to Europe for a Grand Tour when he was 10.  During this 18-month trip, he was exposed to as much culture, art and architecture as they could squeeze in and it left a lifetime's impression.  William was 57 when his mother passed away, finally leaving him in charge of the family fortune, and he went straight to Julia Morgan's office, reportedly saying he wanted to build 'a little something' on the San Simeon Ranch...

It took 28 years to complete that 'little something'.

The initial challenges were not small ones.  There was no road,  plumbing or power in the ranch.  As the first female architect to graduate from San Francisco, Morgan was used to challenges.  All the problems at San Simeon were overcome by Morgan's expertise and Hearst's vision - and money.  They worked as a team throughout the build, consulting and redesigning as they went along.  The process was as important to each of them as the final result. 

But no matter how much you read about it in the guidebook first, nothing really quite prepares you for the sight of this magnificent playground as you follow the same road across the hills that the Hollywood glitterati used in the castle's glory days.  The main house looks more like a European gothic catherdral with its twin towers and huge rose window.  Cloisters taken straight from medieval monastaries and carved teak balconies line the walls outside, while lavish frescoes, fabrics and gilt cover the walls and ceilings inside.  Hearst spent his life collecting great works of art from all over the world.  The house was as much a museum as a home and it is hard to turn without seeing another masterpiece of painting, sculpture or furniture.

We had chosen the Upper Rooms and Suites tour, which would take us through the bedrooms and private rooms of Hearst and his guests.  We were picked up from the Visitor Centre and driven up to the Castle by bus.  The journey takes about 15 minutes, during which an recording tells you all about the road construction and what Hearst's visitors would have seen along the same road all those years ago.  At one time there was a full zoo, with everything from zebras to polar bears.  The zebras still roam free on the ranch, but the other animals are long gone.  It was a great introduction to Hearst and his Castle, and really helped bring the surroundings to life.

Our guide Suzie, was a very enthusiastic lady who took great pleasure in showing us around the house.  She told all her stories in the present tense (I can hear my Dad groaning already), but in this setting it actually worked.  She told us something of the Hearst family history.  The glamour of Hollywood was in full swing and Hearst became fascinated by Hollywood star Marian Davies, which lead to a painful confrontation by his wife and her demand that he choose.  He chose the mistress and installed Davies as mistress of Hearst Castle too.  The parties were legendary and Davies proved to be a gracious and generous hostess - one one occasion she noticed that one guest's assistant was wearing the same dress each day.  When she discovered the girl had only one dress which she was rinsing out each night, she insisted on buying every woman there a new dress so that the girl wouldn't feel bad about accepting one too. 

Hearst's private office and libraries were the highlights of the tour for me.  The library was lined with beautiful carved bookshelves full of leather-bound first editions.  This was also where racks of costumes would be displayed, sent up from the Los Angeles studios for Hearst's famous themed parties.  Guests would be shown in to choose a costume and sent off to the cloister bedrooms to change.  (Single female guests would share twin rooms - the male guests were hidden away on the far side of the castle to avoid any unmarried shenannigans!) 

Hearst's private office was an beautiful long room with carved wooded beams supporting the vaulted ceiling - again, more like a gothic church than an office.  He would receive a copy of each of his 18 papers daily, read every one and sent letters to the editors with his suggestions.  The walls were lined with more bookcases with windows above with an enormous hearth at the end.  I inadvertently set my camera to panoramic mode - which makes a series of 20 loud clicks as you pan the camera around.  Not subtle, and impossible to stop once it starts.  In that room, the echoes made it even worse!  The group parted as everyone turned to look at me, red-faced and grinning sheepishly.  Sorry Suzie!

At the end of the tour, we were free to roam the gardens and see the two stunning swimming pools.  The outdoor pool, known as the Neptune Pool, was rebuilt three times before Hearst was happy with it.  It is a large blue-tiled oval pool, fed by fountains, with white pillars at both ends and a greek temple in front, surrounded by white marble sculptures.  The views down across the hills to the sea are stunning.  It is all too easy to imagine a Hollywood cocktail party out here with the likes of Errol Flynn, Clark Cable and even Charlie Chaplin among the guests.  

The indoor pool was something else entirely.  A long rectangular pool inside a large room, every inch of it was covered in tiny deep blue and gold mosaic with Art Deco railings and even a high diving board at one end.  I could have stayed looking around for another hour, but the winter opening hours were conspiring against us again and we had to catch the bus down in order to see the last film at the Visitor Theatre.  'Building the Dream' filled in the gaps about how the castle came to be, incorporating lots of original photos and early home cinema reels showing everything from construction to costume parties.  

What a fascinating place!  Having grown up in England and visited stately homes, palaces and catherdrals across Europe, their splendour has become a bit familiar.  There's no doubt that Milan Cathedral and the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles are stunning, or that the magnificent murals at Buckingham Palance and Brighton Pavillion demand respect, but you begin to expect a certain level of pomp and circumstance after a while because we are surrounded by it.  Seeing Hearst Castle, with the best of all that Europe has to offer combined into one boy's fantasty home, makes me see those places in a new light.  What must it have been like to see all that as a young boy, having come from America's gold rush era and summer tent camps on the wild Pacific Coast?  And to eventually have the money and freedom to build to your heart's desire?  No wonder it took so long to get it right.   

This is definitely somewhere I will come back and see again.





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