Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Castle or Excess?

[Note: Due to a defect in the film chip, we do not have photos of the interior of areas mentioned below.]

In 1919, William Randolph Hearst inherited some land from his mother. By then, the family ranch had grown from George Hearst's original purchase of 40,000-acres to encompass 250,000 acres, including the Mexican Ranchos of Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, and Santa Rosa.

Hearst set about transforming the family's former wilderness camping area by providing these simple instructions to San Francisco architect Julia Morgan in 1919: "We are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon, and I would like to build a little something."

A "little something," indeed.

As our tour bus climbed the winding five-mile road to the Hearst Castle, more and more of "one of the world's greatest showplaces" came into view. Our first views of the estate of 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways left us feeling overwhelmed by the magnificent main house, "Casa Grande," and three guest houses.

By 1947, Hearst and Morgan had created an estate that world-renowned architectural historian, Lord John Julius Norwich, would describe as "a palace in every sense of the word."

However, we had a different view.

After only a few minutes of a close-up look at the Castle,we were left with one word in mind.


If one statue was striking, then "a dozen would be 12 times as striking" seemed to be the operating philosophy.

The Neptune Pool (next two photos below) is the third enlargement (between 1924-1936) built on this site, each successively larger.

Our tour leader referred to the number of Hollywood stars and politicians who attended parties hosted by Hearst. She mentioned one of the after-dinner activities that Hearst planned. It seems he wanted them to put on a play and gave them about two hours to write the play, forage through the costumes available, and perform the play for his entertainment. As she described the activity, there was a quality of the guests being put in the roles of court jesters to perform at the king's pleasure.

In the Morning Room, "a magnificent sitting room filled with Spanish antiques and Flemish tapestries," excesses abound. All available wall space was covered with very large tapestries (possibly 20' x 50'), and if one bust on a table or one antique item placed in the room was interesting, three or four dozen such items must by impressive.

Rather than being impressed, however, we were left believing our headaches were due to the draining experience of trying to take in all the stimulation and hypothesizing as to Hearst's need to overdo everything.

Beauty was lost in the blur of excess.

The Refectory, or Great Dining Room, was lined with tapestries (lower part of the photo, below), and reproductions (the original silk flags are stored) antique banners from the Palio delle Contrade races in Siena, Italy hung in the room adding color to the Refectory.

The Roman Pool is a tiled heated, indoor pool decorated with eight statues of Roman gods, goddesses and heroes. 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.

So it was not surprising to learn that Hearst was not able to keep up with the costs involved with building, maintaining, and furnishing (with about 22,000 mostly-imported items) Casa Grande (the main house) and three guest houses, totaling a little over 90,000 square feet, and managing a small zoo on the property.

In 1937 the two corporations that controlled the empire found themselves $126 million in debt. To stave off bankruptcy, Hearst sold off some of the forty-two papers he owned, and the the Hearst Corporation donated the buildings and land to the state of California.

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