Far away from my usual stomping ground of Europe, on the other side of the Atlantic in fact, is the imposing private dream home of William Randolph Hearst. Perched on a hillside overlooking the opaque, jade green waters of the Pacific Ocean is the white wedding cake confection variously known as Hearst Castle, San Simeon or in Hearst’s words ‘La Cuesta Encantada’ the enchanted hill. A spectacular building weaving numerous architectural styles into one gloriously idiosyncratic property.
Hearst spared no expense in creating his perfect castle on this piece of rugged California coast. Antique oak panelling came from Ireland. Sparkling white Carrara marble came from a palazzo in Italy. Statues, tapestry, paintings and timber were imported from London, Paris, Rome and Naples. These luxurious items were the bounty of various trips to Europe where the young Hearst accompanied his mother on a series of Grand Tours designed to discover and learn about the history and cultural heritage of the Old World….
As the only child of a man who had discovered a silver mine and his abstemious wife, it would be reasonable to assume that WRH had been born with a silver spoon inserted firmly in his cute little mouth. In fact it wasn’t until the death of his mother that the young Hearst had free rein to spend his vast inheritance as he wished. His response to complete financial freedom was to develop Hearst Castle at San Simeon. He employed the architect Julia Morgan on the San Simeon project for almost 30 years, from 1920-1950. The result was a fairytale castle with a Spanish style Baroque facade. Built in an opposing position high above the ocean ‘La Cuesta Encantada’.
By the time Hearst Castle was completed there were more than 160 rooms and at least one hundred acres of gardens and terraces. This was a house built to impress. At weekends Hearst would host elaborate house parties where he entertained Hollywood stars. Guests were flown from Los Angeles north along the Pacific Coast to San Simeon in Heart’s own private plane. The house had two impossibly beautiful swimming pools. There was a Roman classical pool outside, lined with colonnades and temples. Whilst inside a vast blue and gold pool reminiscent of a tale from ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ sparkled with decadence and charm.
Today a visit to Hearst Castle enables the visitor to step back in time to the 30s, 40s and 50s and to experience this ‘fantastical’ family home with its Hollywood associations and money-no-object lavish interiors. Hearst Castle was the setting for numerous Hollywood parties and events, hosted by Hearst and the actress Marion Davies. Davies was Hearst’s lover for many years. In fact the Hearst story fascinated the British actor Orson Welles. So much so that he produced, directed and starred in the film Citizen Kane (1941) about the life of William Hearst and Marion Davies.
These real life stories fascinate us. We are curious, interested and enthralled by other people’s lives. These stories tell us about happy lives, tragic lives and lives well lived. In fact these narratives shape and inform us. After all we only have one life and curiosity leads to discovery. As the Greek philosopher Socrates observed ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’…..
It’s great that we all love stories, and that we respect and admire those that have gone before us. Private homes and personal spaces always make the best and most interesting museums. Hearst Castle was one man’s dream and his unique legacy lives on. Here on the California coast. Next time you are driving along the Pacific Coast Highway take a detour and visit this extravagant and brilliantly original symphony of architecture, design and originality.
- Julia Morgan was a prominent architect who had a long and productive career. She studied engineering in California before heading to Paris to study at the prestigious l’École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts She was one of the first women to be admitted to their architecture programme. When she returned to California she became the first female architect to be licensed in the state. During her career she designed hundreds of buildings. She is probably best known for her long association with William Randolph Hearst. She worked on the Hearst Castle project for thirty years from 1920 – 1950. Morgan lived from 1872-1957.
- Hearst Castle at San Simeon in now part of the California National Parks Department. A visit is strongly recommended. Hearst Castle The tours available are fascinating and very professionally run.
- Whilst driving the Pacific Coast Highway don’t miss the town of San Simeon where there is an enormous sea-lion colony! Visit San Simeon, California
- For more examples of private homes, that are now museums, giving a fascinating insight into the people that once lived there, have a look at: London, Venice, Loire, California – True stories, real lives, private homes to visit
- Happy Reading!