California’s most distinct and luxurious home, Hearst Castle is a palace in every sense of the word perched on top the rolling hills of San Simeon.
By Stephanie Consiglio
Extraordinary, phenomenal, magnificent are all very strong words used to describe something so grand, people have to see it with their own eyes to know it exists. Homebuilders are creating extravagant, over-the-top homes with gadgets, theaters, pools and even guest houses, but nothing can match the beautiful breathtaking Hearst Castle. Its exquisite architecture and rich history make it stand out amongst the rest. The details in design can only be learned and incorporated in architectural style homebuilding projects seen today.
Hearst Castle’s history begins in 1865, when George Hearst purchased 40,000 acres of ranchland in San Simeon. In 1919, William Randolph Hearst inherited what had grown to be more than 250,000 acres. He dreamt of ways to transform it into a retreat he called La Cuesta Encantada, Spanish for “The Enchanted Hill.” In a unique collaboration of builder and architect, by 1947 W.R. Hearst and architect Julia Morgan had created Hearst Castle exactly as it stands to this day. Hearst and Morgan worked collaborated from 1919 to 1947 to design and build Hearst Castle: 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways, which were all built to house Hearst’s specifications and to showcase his legendary art collection. It sits at 82,000 square feet, excluding the garages.
The Mediterranean Revival style architecture, seen in both the home and gardens, was selected by Hearst and Morgan to complement W.R Hearst’s Mediterranean fine and decorative art to be housed and exhibited in and around the estate. This Mediterranean Revival style of architecture was very popular in the West drawing inspiration from San Francisco’s 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition and San Diego’s 1915 Panama-California Exposition.
In 1919 William Randolph Hearst hired Julia Morgan to design a main building and guest houses for his ranch in San Simeon, California. Mr. Hearst instructed her to build “something that would be more comfortable” than the platform tents, which he previously used at the ranch. Over the course of the next 28 years, Morgan supervised nearly every aspect of construction at Hearst Castle including the purchase of everything from Spanish antiquities to Icelandic Moss to reindeer for the Castle’s zoo.
The Guest Houses were built first, starting in the early 1920’s. The last part of the construction was the north wing of the estate in the mid to late 1940’s. Each guest house was sited for their specific panoramic views, Casa del Sol for the view of the setting sun, Casa del Mar for the view of the sea, and Casa del Monte for the view of the mountains. Each Guest House is designed with sitting rooms located in the center, with guest bedrooms and baths flanking either side.
The house was used for business meetings as well as entertaining guests from many ‘walks of life.’ Guests were business associates, but also political leaders such as Calvin Coolidge, Winston Churchill, NYC Mayor Jimmy Walker, as well as journalists, literary figures, actors, artists, producers, and other notable figures of the era. Guests could horseback ride, play tennis, swim in a choice of an indoor or outdoor pool, enjoy the library, dine in the fabulous refectory, picnic at the beach or in the hills and visit the zoo. Traveling the winding ranch road to Hearst Castle, guests once passed through fenced fields populated with many species of exotic wild animals freely roaming over the hillsides as though they were native to this land. The Hearst zoo followed an ancient model, a zoo owned by a wealthy man calculated to impress, amaze and entertain.
William Randolph Hearst and architect Julia Morgan collaborated on an extraordinary project that spanned nearly three decades. “Built on a hilltop about 1,600 feet high overlooking the Pacific Ocean and surrounding Santa Lucia Mountains, this inspirational estate was created in a location which, before the building of the estate began, had no infrastructure –no roads, no electricity, and no public water source,” explained Jim Allen, marketing communications director at Hearst Castle. “It required extraordinary vision and determination to create this hilltop estate and perhaps that, in and of itself, could be the inspiration for future homebuilders.”
The spacious kitchen and pantry, where all meals were prepared for W.R. Hearst and his guests is full of practical and luxury devices, everything from stock pots, industrial-sized mixers, and early refrigerators, which stand today just as they did decades ago. Some examples of ‘luxury’ items include electric towel dryers, huge Monel warming tables (Monel was named after Ambrose Monel, a U.S. manufacturer, his name was the trademark for an alloy mainly of nickel and copper, which was resistant to corrosion), custom water taps featuring decorative brass handles, original flatware, china, silver, and glassware, electric refrigerators, pressure cookers, electric ovens and rotisserie, and other sundry conveniences of the era.
The Wine Cellar at Hearst Castle consists of two rooms with double vault doors, the wine cellar is part of the Casa Grande basement. Located below the north end of the Assembly Room, the wine cellar is inconvenient relative to the kitchen. However, the cellar’s placement was probably dictated by the need for an even cool temperature, more easily maintained on the north side of the building. Ideally, wines should be stored at 45 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, as a higher temperature can cause the wine to mature too rapidly. The Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting the manufacture, sale or transportation of liquor in the United States had taken effect in 1920 and was not to be repealed until 1933, but that seemed to give little pause to Hearst’s wine cellar plans. It does explain, however, his insistence on locked iron doors. He wrote: “I consider the Eighteenth Amendment not only the most flagrant violation of the basic American principle of personal liberty that has ever been imposed on the American public, but the most complete failure as a temperance measure that has ever been conceived and put into impractical operation.”
As movies became the central entertainment of the public in the 20’s movie theaters came into their own as fantasy expressions of the medium. In such a space, movie goers could be transported into a non-everyday world in preparation for the fantasy transition of seeing the movie itself. At Hearst Castle, a movie theater might be considered a natural choice as guests included Hollywood greats such as Lionel and John Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Dolores del Rio, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Jean Harlow, and Buster Keaton, among others.
Hearst and Morgan’s collaboration resulted in one of the world’s greatest attractions and showplaces that the public can visit today. Julia Morgan will be awarded the prestigious AIA Gold Medal Award posthumously this year. Morgan joined the AIA in 1921 as only the seventh female member. She is the 70th AIA Gold Medalist and joins the ranks of such visionaries as Thomas Jefferson. Donated by the Hearst Corporation to California State Parks in 1957, it opened to the public in 1958.
Stephanie Consiglio is an assistant editor for Options. She may be contacted at