I’ve wanted to visit Hearst Castle since I first saw the movie Citizen Kane in college. Not that Citizen Kane is exactly based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the man who built the castle. But close enough.
I arrived at the castle grounds yesterday, on a perfect
California December day. The view up and down the coast was clear, and I could
see why Hearst would pick such a remote site to build his largest residence.
There are few spots in the world as scenic and mild-climated as the California coastline.
I was surprised that I couldn’t drive right up to the castle. You have to park at the visitor’s center, at the foot of the mountain where the castle is perched. You can glimpse the structures way at the crest of the coastal range in the distance, sitting like a Gaudí fantasy. That theme-park aura only intensified when the shuttle bus driver told us about the zebra and other animals that still roam the hills, left over from Hearst’s private zoo. An aoudad mountain goat did charge across the road on the way down. I wouldn’t want to drive those switchbacks without guardrails, and I kept wondering if any cars had ever rolled over the side after a night of partying at the castle.
The mansion itself is strikingly like a cathedral, but mixed in with the very pagan statuary of buff gods and goddesses, and the distinctly sporty flavor of the pools and tennis courts.
The interior Grand Rooms are lavish
but rather fussy, featuring lots of carved wood ceilings and choir stall
paneling brought twig by twig from the continent, seat of culture, at least in
the mind of an American tycoon of the 1920s and 30s. I did enjoy the elaborate tile work in the exterior courtyards.
What’s intriguing to me is how completely different this house is
from the palaces of the East Coast magnates, such as the Roosevelts’ Hyde
Park residence, or J.P. Morgan’s home in New York, which conform to a stuffed-armchair ideal of good taste, much more European. Hearst Castle is not in good taste. It’s
a hodgepodge of classical, renaissance, and gothic. The artwork is a mélange of Spanish, French, Mexican, Flemish, Italian, and Greek. (One can imagine architect
Julia Morgan biting her tongue at some of her client's choices.) The private movie theater has art deco caryatids holding branches of lights.
Hearst Castle is
distinctly Californian in its idiosyncratic features and its defiance of
decorum. It’s no surprise that the lady who presided there at Hearst’s side was
not usually his wife, but the movie actress Marion Davis, who was his
A Hollywood crowd often filled the guest rooms at the castle,
including Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Jean Harlow, and Clark Gable.
|the Neptune pool|
|paving tiles in an exterior courtyard|
|light fixtures in the movie theater|
I’m not saying that bad taste is a virtue, but there’s something refreshing and original about the mix at the Hearst Castle. Only a bold mind would have created with architect Julia Morgan the two pools: the Neptune Pool for outdoor swimming, and the Roman Pool for indoor, with its dark blue and gold tiles covering every inch, from the deep end of the water to the ceiling.
I’m not defending Hearst’s politics and his active
campaigning through his newspapers for the United States to enter the
Spanish-American War. But I do find his castle surprisingly likeable, in its
own naïve and earnest way.
|the Roman pool|
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