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  • Day21

    Hearst Castle

    September 19, 2019 in the United States ⋅ ☀️ 18 °C

    William Randolph Hearst, the media magnate, was born into money. His senator father George had made a fortune in mining and he bought the property that the family always knew as ‘the ranch’ in 1865. They glamped on the hilltop every summer for many years and adored the ranch, gradually increasing it’s size to 250,000 acres. Willie’s mother Phoebe, was a strong and influential figure on her son and society in general, being an educator and strong believer in women’s rights. She took her young son on two Grand Tours to Europe, which had a lasting effect on him and kick started the collecting bug, something that never left him. Hearst was 56 when his mother died and he inherited the ranch, along with the family businesses and fortune, which he had added to considerably with his media empire. By then he was married and had five sons and decided that he would employ his mother’s favourite architect Julia Morgan to build a ‘simple holiday home’ in his favourite spot in the world, high on the hill outside San Simeon. This collaboration continued for 28 years, until Williams’s death and that holiday home evolved into a four storey opulent retreat, one of the most extravagant homes in the world. The main house, or Casa Grande, is based on a Rhonda cathedral and consists of over a hundred rooms, There are three guest ‘cottages’, an incredible ‘Neptune’ pool, indoor Roman pool tiled with over 3million blue and 24 carat gold Murano mosaics, specially commissioned. Italianate gardens, a mile long pergola covered in vines, fruit trees and last but not least the largest private zoo in the world. The access road twists and turns as it climbs towards the castle giving tantalising glimpses of what is to come. Julia Morgan was Hearst’s Svengali, designing this Mediterranean Revival estate and filling it with art and antiques from Hearst’s vast collection. There are beautiful medieval Spanish and Italian ceilings bought, dismantled and incorporated into every room in the house. Tapestries and art work of incredible provenance decorate the walls. Persian carpets are laid on sprung wooden floors. The furniture is a mix of the ancient and modern comfort. Beds are exquisite examples of antiquity with modern springing and mattresses. Doors are carved, painted and studded and in the magnificent library, almost incidentally, there are 450 superb examples of Greek urns, painted to depict the everyday life of Ancient Greece. There are Egyptian statues of the Gods, Italian statuary, alabaster and jade statuettes converted into lamps, Gregorian chants on vellum made into lampshades and I could go on and on. When William Hearst died at 88 years old, only 10% of his vast collection had been incorporated into the ranch. He had seven other homes and there is a huge repository in New York a block long and 4 storeys high filled with artefacts of all types. Collecting on this scale is almost impossible to comprehend, although wealthy individuals have embarked on such schemes before and since.
    We were not sure quite what to expect when we arrived at the visitor centre today. We had a tour of the Grand Rooms booked for the morning and the Upstairs Suites this afternoon. In between we admired the gardens and grabbed some lunch. I knew this was an extraordinary estate, but in truth had not fully comprehended the scale of it. The great, the good and the not so good were invited and entertained lavishly, the heydays being the 20s and 30s. You are conducted on a tour by very knowledgeable guides and room after fabulous room unfolds before your eyes. Bearing in mind prohibition, the drinks cellar and butlers pantry are locked away behind bank vault doors!
    I am sorry if this dialogue is somewhat muddled, but my mind is still in a whirl, full of gorgeous vistas and impressions and I cannot begin to try and explain the overall effect, except to say it is quite unbelievable. I think one of the most interesting aspects is that Hearst and Morgan took artefacts from all over the Mediterranean and of differing periods, plus huge pieces of architecture and blended it so superbly into a homogenous whole. This really should not be the case, but somehow it works and it has been a real lesson in creativity and the power of what unlimited funds can do.
    The ranch is still a working ranch owned by the Hearst Corporation. The house and gardens and tracts of coast have been donated to the State of California for public access, because it was latterly seen as a white elephant in business terms, without the driving force of its creator. William Randolph Hearst and Julia Morgan always felt they were creating a museum of Renaissance and Gothic treasures and would no doubt be delighted that over a million visitors a year now enter its portals. Hearst felt that as many Americans would never be able to visit Europe for themselves to see such magnificence, he would bring it to them and boy has he ever! Hearst worked and played hard all his life, existing on little sleep and his ‘simple ranch holiday home’ must surely be the legacy to end all legacies.

    Hopefully some photos to follow when possible!
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