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California's Castle - Two Tours At Hearst Castle

California's Castle - Two Tours At Hearst Castle

Old Jun 20th, 2024, 09:13 AM
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California's Castle - Two Tours At Hearst Castle

California's Castle - As you might know, when Tracy and I travel in Europe we love exploring castles. When Kim and Mary invited us to meet them on the central coast of California, we decided to stop by the most famous castle in the United States. Renowned San Francisco architect Julia Morgan worked alongside publishing magnate Willian Randolph Hearst to design Hearst Castle (now part of the California State Park System) on La Cuesta Encantada overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We took two tours exploring his home. Hearst’s Casa Grande is pretty remarkable Walking through the gardens with flowers in full bloom kept Tracy's camera busy. And those pools! If you are near the central coast, Hearst Castle is a must, in my opinion. (Story with dozens and dozens of photos and in link below ... story without photos and with plenty of misspellings, below the few photos I posted here.

“A man’s home is his castle,” is a phrase used by many. In the case of William Randolph Hearst, it was a literal statement. In 1919 (not coincidentally the year Hearst inherited $11 million, which is slightly more than $204 million in 2024) he decided to construct an estate like no other on his vast ranch land (250,000 acres) located high above the village of San Simeon. He called the area La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill). Between 1919 and 1947 he, along with the expertise of famed San Francisco architect Julia Morgan, built a castle and guest houses. It was originally intended to be the family home for Hearst, his wife Millicent and their five sons.

However, by the mid 20s, Hearst was romantically involved with actress Marion Davies, who remained his mistress until his death in 1951. Millicent eventually filed for divorce in 1937 but Hearst refused to agree to her demands (she wanted control of Cosmopolitan magazine as part of the settlement), so the divorce was never finalized.

Hearst’s architect, Julia Morgan, was a trailblazer and is called "America's first truly independent female architect.” Among her many accomplishments she was “the first woman to study architecture at the School of Beaux-Arts in Paris, the first woman to graduate from the UC Berkeley College of Engineering, the first woman to have her own architectural practice in California and the first female winner of the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal.” She and Hearst designed the castle that contains 58 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms (as I get older that could come in handy) and 19 sitting rooms. There were also 127 acres of glorious gardens, three guest houses, an indoor and outdoor swimming pool, … well, let’s skip to our visit.

Parking at the Visitor Center, we collected a wrist band for entry to the tour. (We had purchased advance tickets online for the 1 1a.m. Grand Rooms Tour and the 2 p.m. Upstairs Suites Tour.)

While waiting for our first tour, we popped into the museum at the Visitor Center, which chronicles Hearst’s life and displays information about the property, master architect Morgan, the collections and the famous people who visited through the years.

Climbing aboard the bus we traversed the steep and curvy five-mile road that rises more than 1,600 feet. From my seat, the bus seemed to come far too close to edge of the road with vertiginous drops, which I will admit did not help my AFib. Suddenly, the voice of Alex Trebek boomed from the speakers offering some history of the property. Looking at how close we were to the edge, I whispered to Tracy, “We really are in Jeopardy.” She said not to worry, because there are 22,000 or so bus trips per year, so the odds were that we’d make it safely.

On the way up there was no sign of the castle as it was shrouded in fog. Finally, we caught a glimpse, and thankfully we had not plummeted to our demise.

Our guide gave us the lay of the land …

… as we viewed a couple of Italian marble statues that once were in the Neptune Pool.

We caught a brief glimpse of that amazing pool as we walked to our first stop.

Looking up, I thought we were looking at the castle. On the contrary, we were gazing at one of three picturesque “cottages” on the property. This one has eight bedrooms and eight bathrooms set on three levels. This guest house was named Casa del Sol for the phenomenal views of the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

In front of the cottage there is a reproduction of the restored David, which originally was created by Italian sculptor Donatello in the mid-5th century that resides in Florence at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello.

We admired the goddess Nike, also called Winged Victory, on the patio. It’s a copy of a 1st century Roman statue that was discovered in Brescia, Italy, in 1826, so it was not created by Phil Knight.

The view toward the Pacific had cleared a bit, and we hoped we’d get better weather during the afternoon tour. (Foreshadowing alert: We did!)

The Neptune Pool had many iterations over the years. Hearst famously changed his mind often on many aspects of the construction of Hearst Castle, which is why the property was under construction for nearly 28 years, and was still unfinished when Hearst left for the final time in 1947.

Greek Revival and Ancient Roman Revival pavilions and colonnades surround the pool.

This is a sculpture Hearst commissioned in 1930 called The Birth of Venus by French artist Charles Cassou.

We’d get some blue sky photos of the pool on our afternoon tour (all Hearst Castle tours include both pools).

The gardens are exquisite …

… and we lucked out as the roses were in full bloom. I read Hearst and Morgan designed the gardens on the hilltop to help “soften the architecture.”

This was one Rosebud with a happy ending.

The Bell Tower of Casa Grande is ever-present.

Sculptures were everywhere, and I’m not lion.

This 20th century copy of Venus of Cyrene is located in the gardens near Casa del Monte. Supposedly her clothes are draped over a dolphin. I don’t see it.

The main residence is named Casa Grande. It was built to resemble the Church of Santa Marķa la Mayor in Ronda, Spain, which we visited in 2015 (below right). A very young Hearst traveled extensively in Europe with his mother, and those travels would inspire his architectural choices.

The Grand Rooms Tour was about to begin. First stop, the Assembly Room. This magnificent “social room” is where Hearst met his guests for cocktails and conversation before dinner, however guests could be found mingling in this nearly 25,000 square foot room at all hours. In fact, it was so large that sometimes guests would communicate with other guests in the room by telephone. Writer and illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans observed that the Assembly Room looked like "half of Grand Central station.”

Fourteenth and 15th century tapestries hang throughout the room, including four (of an original set of ten), which celebrate Roman general Scipio Africanus. The entire set of ten once belonged to King Louis IX.

Many large marble sculptures and bronze art pieces adorn this room.

Somewhere there’s a hidden elevator (well, it is “hidden”) that Hearst used to join his guests unannounced. He welcomed guests like Winston Churchill, Cary Grant, Charles Lindbergh, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo. Wait, there’s another Garbo besides our corgi?!

Walnut ceiling panels were purchased by Hearst in the mid-1920s from an Italian palazzo.

This enormous fireplace once resided in a chāteau in Burgundy. Upon arrival, the wall had to be torn down and rebuilt to accommodate the fireplace.

Also in this room are 16th century choir stalls. They were an addition Hearst had installed in the mid-1920s. Architect Morgan would often use the quote “changeableness of mind” when it came to Hearst’s requests.

Next up, the adjacent Refectory where Hearst and his guests dined. We were greeted by an Italian 15th century carved marble sculpture.

Gothic-style in architecture, this is the only dining room in the castle. Well, if only have one, you might as well make it spectacular. It has a large Italian Renaissance ceiling.

What caught my immediate attention were the colorful flags mounted high on the walls. Something about them looked familiar. Our docent told us that these were banners from the 17 contrades (districts within the Italian countryside) that compete in the famed Siena, Italy, horse race, the Palio.

I hadn’t seen one of these since our 2005 trip to Siena, when Tracy attempted to horse around during a celebration of the Palio.

The Refectory is quite a setting for a meal.

Speaking of setting, check out the condiments. Nothing fancy here!

Every party needs a little music, and they did it right in the Refectory. Hearst asked Morgan to create what he described as “The Musician’s Loft.” Mostly music was piped into the Refectory, but if you were lucky, there might be live entertainment, like when Roy Rogers and The Sons of the Pioneers performed. That was sure to Trigger some excitement.

A pretty fantastic room, indeed.

We stepped into The Morning Room, but this darn couple always seemed to photo bomb our attempts at photography.

The Morning Room is where guests assembled following dinner. The gorgeous ceiling that was purchased in 1921 was originally from an area in Northeastern Spain. Morgan and her craftsmen added some more details.

Well, we’d seen a pool, so now it was time for the Billiards Room.

It wasn’t completed until 1933. No male chauvinism here. Women and men could all play billiards together.

We admired the 1500 Stag Hunt Flemish tapestry, as well as the 15th century Italian ceiling.

Hearst racked up a lot of art during his lifetime. We took a cue from our guide to head to the next room.

What else could his guests do to amuse themselves while staying at Hearst Castle? How about catching a flick in the 50-seat Movie Room. The movies would often star guests staying at the castle or feature Marion Davies.

When an outdoor pool isn’t enough, build an indoor pool!

The Roman Pool was built between 1927 and 1934 and is supposedly patterned after the Baths of Caracalla in Rome (hopefully we will see them next year).

According to castle literature, “the mosaic tiled patterns were inspired by the mosaics found in the 5th Century Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy.” There are also copies of Roman and Greek statues.

I was kind of amazed to learn that for many years it was a salt water pool and even more amazed to learn that Hearst originally wanted salt water from the ocean pumped up to the castle. Morgan finally convinced him that that would be a very expensive bad idea. After all, Hearst’s father didn’t call him “Wasteful Willy” for no reason.

In 1933, 18 tons of salt was dumped into the pool which damaged the plumbing, and five years later the pool had to be emptied. After sitting empty for seven years, it was finally refilled with fresh water.

Our first tour was complete. When booking the tours, I had been advised that I should leave enough time between the two tours so as to not miss the bus for the second tour. However, our bus driver, Mario Andretti Jr., had us back with more than an hour to spare. (If you book two tours, you still have to take the bus down and back up again.)

We quickly inquired if we could switch to an earlier tour of the Upstairs Suites, and within 15 minutes we were heading back up the hill, once again listening to Alex Trebek. Without missing a beat, Tracy whispered to me, “I guess we’re in Double Jeopardy now.”

There’s the castle! Skies were looking blue.

On this trip, the Neptune Pool was our first stop, only from another angle. We gazed out at the turquoise water … all 345,000 gallons of it.

Somebody has to keep these sculptures clean. This, I think is also part of the Birth of Venus sculptures, but by now I was having trouble getting my Venuses and Neptunes straight.

After an extensive restoration project started about a decade ago, the pool was refilled in 2018.

Being here in the middle of spring after a wet winter, the flowers popped.

We were now at Casa del Monte.

According to its Facebook page, “Casa del Monte was the first cottage to be completed, so the Hearst family was able to stay here in the summers of 1921/22. Mr. Hearst was very involved in the decisions concerning the floor plan, selection of objects and color schemes. He wanted it to be decorated in a 16th century Renaissance style with garlands and putti (winged infants).”

This is the “smallest” of the guest houses (four bedrooms, four bathrooms and approximately 2500 square feet).

While the main house was being built, Hearst resided in yet another cottage (Casa Del Mar) with 5,350 square feet and eight bedrooms. Cary Grant, Winston Churchill, Charles Lindbergh along with many other famous people slept here. It’s also where Hearst spent the last two years of his life, because navigating the stairs to his third-floor bedroom proved to be too taxing. (We never saw Casa Del Mar, but we hope to return for another couple of tours.)

We once again approached Casa Grande.

Tracy was in floral heaven here, and we finally had to drag her inside.

Hearst was enamored with ancient Roman sarcophagi, so much so that he at the time he resided here, he “owned more Ancient Roman sarcophagi than any other American museum.” This one, however, is thought to be a forgery of a 3rd century AD style.

I very carefully climbed the first of the 322 stairs (not all at once fortunately) on the Upstairs Suites Tour, so Tracy wouldn’t have to leave me in the sarcophagi later.

The first area of the main building is called the Doge’s Suite. Actress Colleen Moore once stated, “When you slept in the Doge’s Suite, you knew you had ‘arrived.’”

President Calvin Coolidge and his wife stayed here, along with many other dignitaries and show biz folks.

The Doge’s Suite sitting room was stunning and was patterned after the Doge’s Palace in Venice (a must-see when visiting there.)

The painted antique ceiling details were remarkable. The ceiling was purchased from renowned architect Stanford White’s estate (read more about him … a fascinating life that ended in murder at Madison Square Garden … the arena he designed). According to what I read, the panel shows “the annunciation of the birth of Christ as recounted in the gospel of Luke.“

We checked out the 19th-century marble and bronze Italian inkwell. Since quick-drying ink had not been invented yet, there was a blotter and thick paper to help prevent smears.

Everything in this room is gorgeous.

The marble balcony with its carved lions (a symbol of Venice) offers fantastic views of the Santa Lucia mountain range. Hearst very much wanted the back of tthe house to look similar to what you’d see in Venice

Next was a guest bedroom decorated in Italian Renaissance-style. The ceiling is Italian Rococo.

We ran into these two stoic guys along the way.

We walked past another guest bedroom …

… on the way to Wow! The Hearst Library is something to behold.

Located immediately above the Assembly Room, guests liked to congregate here because, for one reason, the room was warmer and more comfortable. Hearst wrote to Julia Morgan that “the Library is rapidly becoming the Living Room on account of its superior warmth and comfort.”

In this room is Hearst’s huge collection (more than 150) of Greek vases.

Check out the pot in the corner … The The Baring Amphora is more than 2,700 years old, making it the oldest pot in his collection.

The white pot on the desk tells another tale. It was damaged in 6.3 earthquake in 2003, and was put together by a group of restorationists. The building, however, suffered no damage whatsoever, another testament to Morgan’s architectural wizardry. The ceiling is a 16th century Spanish style.

Being a library, it also has a number of books. More than 4,000 of them.

The third level of Casa Grande (The Gothic Suite) was Hearst’s private area that included his and Marion Davies’ bedroom, a sitting room and a study.

If I remember correctly, guests gathered to listen to music on the radio in this sitting room..

However, the only Madonna at that time was this one.

Parchment lamp shades, some featuring Gregorian chant music, are found throughout this part of the tour.

We passed by Hearst’s dressing room …

… and soon we were standing in his bedroom finished in 1928. The French walnut bed is from the 16th century. It happens to be the smallest of all the bedrooms in the castle.

Above the bed is one of the building’s oldest ceilings (14th century), which comes from a region in northeast Spain.

Hearst apparently loved his mother very much, so her picture is prominently displayed in the room. (No, he doesn’t have two paintings of her. When Tracy took the photo, the painting somehow reflected perfectly in the mirror to the right.)

Marion Davies’ bedroom is a showcase for Madonna, the original one.

This room has six Madonna and Child paintings in it.

Next to her bed is Davies’ favorite piece of art, an art deco clock. Coincidentally, Davies starred in a picture that was never released called The Five O’Clock Girl.

Hearst was influential in courting the sensational side of the news in his battle with rival publisher Joseph Pulitzer. Their style of news was dubbed “Yellow Journalism.” Fake news, early 20th century style.

Also on the third floor is the Gothic Study. You’ve heard of face-lifts, well this room had a roof lift between the years of 1931-1935.

Hearst used this room as his private study, and our guide told us that his son, Bill Jr., had to call him before entering the room.

There was no shortage of reading materials.

We were finding out that not too many residences could hold a candle to this one.

Perhaps the coolest area of the Upstairs Suites was the Celestial Suite on the fourth floor, which features two bedrooms connected by a sitting room.

Originally, Hearst had envisioned that Casa Grande would have a couple of “Sleeping Porches.” However, the harsh realities of weather on the central Coast nixed those plans.

One of the bedrooms in the Celestial Suite had yet another remarkable Spanish antique ceiling. Frequent guest Hedda Hopper enjoyed this suite so much she called it the “Jewel Case.”

You could just see out to the ocean.

In one corner of the sitting room in the Celestial Suite stands a 17th-century Spanish wood polychrome called Virgin As A Young Girl. Check out her glass eyes.

Also in the Celestial Suite Sitting Room is a 12th century French Romanesque mantel Hearst bought in 1922. Ten years later, Morgan was advised by Morgan to put it in this room because “it would harmonize better than anything else with the surroundings.”

Views out to the mountains from one of the terraces, and we just had a couple of more rooms to scope out.

Another beautiful guest room is the Della Robbia Room. It’s named after a family of Florentine sculptors who were famous for their tin-glazed terra cotta relief sculptures.

Although unable to get a very good photo, it should be said Morgan designed the innovative Duplex Bedrooms, which were two bedrooms including a loft.

We saved the best ceiling for last.

In the South Upper Duplex Bedrooms we have our old friend Neptune, the God of the Sea, on a horse-drawn chariot, fixated on a woman thought to be his wife, Amphrite, who just happens to be a sea nymph. It must have been hard to date in those days.

One last vase, and we headed out.

All’s well that ends well.

Well, not quite.

We walked past the back of Casa Grande complete with its 600 year-old columns from Venice and windows from France…

… for one last look at the indoor Roman pool, this time from a different perspective.

If possible, it was even more beautiful from this angle.

According to the Hearst website: “The Roman Pool is decorated from ceiling to floor with 1″ square mosaic tiles. These glass tiles, called smalti, are either colored (mainly blue or orange) or are clear with fused gold inside. The intense colors and shimmering gold of the tiles combine to create a breathtaking effect. The designs created by the tiles were developed by muralist Camille Solon.”

The eight statues are of Roman and Greek athletes and deities. They were carved in Italy in 1930s.

Hearst Castle is a spectacular property, and we are anxious to return for the Guest House Tours and The Julia Morgan Tour, as her story might be the most fascinating of them all, in my opinion. I also hope that the weather will cooperate a little better next time, so we can better admire the fantastic views from La Cuesta Encantada.

Hearst led a complicated and controversial life, but there is no denying that this property is like no other. Our tour guide told us that the Hearst family exchangeds the castle and contents for taxes which is why, in 1954, Hearst castle was designated a state park. The property was opened to visitors four years later and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and named a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

The land surrounding the castle is still owned by the Hearst family which runs a cattle operation on its 80,000 acres.

Our guide had warned us not to stray from the group in this area, so when I heard him yell at someone for not following his directions, I thought to myself, “I hate it when people bring kids on these tours.” When I turned to see what he had done, I was dismayed to see the object of the guide’s stern warning was not the kid, but my wife.

If you are ever in the vicinity of California’s Central Coast, a tour (or two) of Hearst Castle should definitely be number one on your agenda.

maitaitom is offline  
Old Jun 20th, 2024, 01:49 PM
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Really looking forward to reading this and looking at all of Tracy's photos -- will put it aside til this evening when I have a bit more time. Just realized its been more than 20 years (jeeze Louise -- where does the time go! ) since the last time I visited San Simeon
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Old Jun 20th, 2024, 04:30 PM
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"Just realized its been more than 20 years (jeeze Louise -- where does the time go! ) since the last time I visited San Simeon."

You're not alone. It had been 30+ years for the four of us, and I've already received lots of emails today mostly saying, "Wow, I haven't been there in x amount of years. I should go again." Time, indeed, goes quickly.
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Old Jun 21st, 2024, 06:55 AM
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It's an impressive place and the views from there are out of this world.
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Old Jun 21st, 2024, 08:50 AM
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Great writing, as usual!

I live nearby so have been often. If you're in the neighborhood again, check out Hearst Ranch Winery across the street.
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Old Jun 21st, 2024, 12:54 PM
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We were there pre=pandemic as we were in the area for a wedding in Big Sur. I really do recommend the Visitors Center and the film, especially if you are not familiar with Hearst. Our guide was very good, taking the time to engage with one 10 year old who was there with his mom, showing an old-fashioned telephone and asking him to take a guess as to what it might be. A fun day and definitely worth seeing, although I doubt I would re-visit if I am ever in that area again.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2024, 10:41 AM
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"taking the time to engage with one 10 year old who was there with his mom, showing an old-fashioned telephone and asking him to take a guess as to what it might be."

I would have loved to see that.
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