Hearst Castle: A Home Like No Other
By Don Blodger
The heading at the top of the website reads – A Museum Like No Other. A bold promise, indeed.
Of course, I was intrigued and, having watched and critiqued the film Citizen Kane in college, I figured I had some knowledge of the man, William Randolph Hearst.
W.R. Hearst, the newspaper tycoon, in 1915 began discussing building a small bungalow on the hilltop at his ranch in San Simeon, California. He reportedly said, “I get tired of going up there and camping in tents. I’m getting a little too old for that. I’d like to get something that would be a little more comfortable”.
And so it began.
The Hearst Castle Visitor Center is less than a half a mile off the Cabrillo Hwy 1 in San Simeon, California. We arrived early, wanting to see the 40-minute video, “Building a Dream.”
The film, shown on a 5-story screen, focuses on William Randolph Hearst as a young boy, traveling with his mother, Phoebe, and visiting the antiquity and architectural treasures of Europe, which laid the foundation for his passion and inspiration.
The second half of the film highlighted the talented architect, Julia Morgan, and her partnership with Hearst spanning 28 years as they built his small bungalow, which came to be known as “La Cuesta Encantada” or “The Enchanted Hill.”
Julia Morgan was quite an impressive figure in her own right. After obtaining an engineering degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1896, she continued her training and was the first woman to graduate from the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
In addition, she became the first female licensed architect in California.
Boarding the Bus
After the video, we boarded our tour bus outside the Visitor Center. The 15-minute bus ride took us up to the Castle along the same narrow, serpentine road Hearst and company used to build his 165-room, 60-bath estate. He began the project at age 56.
We made reservations for two one-hour tours, using the Reserve America online system, which was fairly easy and provided a lot of information. However, one thing that wasn’t clear was that the tour start time reflects the time when boarding the bus, rather than when the Castle tour begins.
The Grand Rooms
We started with the Grand Rooms tour, which includes some of the larger rooms on the first floor and provides much of the historical foundation of how Hearst’s vision and Morgan’s expertise grew exponentially into an amazing architectural achievement housing his 20,000-piece art collection.
This tour highlighted the Assembly Room, Morning Room, Refectory, Billiard Room and the Neptune Pool, which is currently empty and being reinforced to modern standards…apparently, it was leaking.
The dining room, known as the Refectory, is surrounded by colorful silk flags from the various districts that compete in the famous Palio horse race in Siena, Italy. Despite the size of this wondrous estate, Hearst usually referred to it as “the Ranch,” and because to him it was just a ranch, he insisted there be a jar of mustard and a bottle of ketchup at every meal.
The Billiard Room was a popular room with his guests, boasting a 15th Century Spanish painted ceiling and Flemish tapestry from the late 1400’s. Men and women were often seen playing pool together which, at that time, predated women’s right to vote and was not considered acceptable social behavior.
The Upstairs Suites
Our next tour focused on the rooms on the second and third floors, reached only by climbing up a narrow, enclosed concrete spiral staircase.
This tour highlighted the Library, Doges Suite and many other rooms, including Hearst’s bedroom and the bedroom of his live-in friend, not-his-wife, Marion Davies.
One of the most impressive rooms was Mr. Hearst’s Gothic Study. This was where he did most of his work and read every daily issue from all of his newspapers. Although he used this room for his work, he was able to conduct business from almost anywhere, having installed 100 telephones throughout the estate.
Another spectacular room is the Main Library. The top shelf is full of antique vases and artifacts and was Hearst’s chosen location for costume parties, often with a Civil War theme.
W.R. Hearst loved to entertain and share his ranch with others and, with so many luxurious bedrooms available, his guest list was often long. He hosted many, mostly from the entertainment and political world, including names such as Winston Churchill, Calvin Coolidge, Charles Lindbergh, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Clark Cable and Jean Harlow.
As impressive as the indoor space is, the outdoor space was equally impressive, which includes immaculately trimmed gardens, expansive inlaid patios, water fountains and 3 large guest houses, totaling 46 rooms.
However, as much as the Castle seems to be the centerpiece, Hearst wanted the view to be the star of the show and, combined with Morgan’s creative genius, they kept the view paramount during their long partnership. One example of this is that all 40 fireplaces are either on the north or south facing wall, allowing for an unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean to the west or the mountains to the east.
As we returned to our bus to head back down to sea level, and perhaps back to some reality, we were treated to one last marvel, the Indoor Pool. This pool, built to resemble the ancient Roman baths, is tiled in blue and gold, floor-to-ceiling, and surrounded by marble statues of Greek gods and athletes…not exactly your local community pool.
Much has been said about William Randolph Hearst with his enormous wealth, his business and political career, and his no-compromise vision. However, regardless of our perception of him and his accomplishments, “The Chief,” as he was known by his employees, clearly was one-of-a-kind and, I must conclude, the Castle he left behind is truly a museum like no other.
It is best to get reservations before you go, especially in peak summer times. There are 3 group tours lasting one hour at the cost of $25 per person. There are other tours, including an evening tour during the fall and spring, as well as semi-private and private tours. The rules are fairly strict on what you can and cannot bring on the tour, so it is best to read up before you go.
Old San Simeon
Directly across the entrance to Hearst Castle, nestled among a row of Eucalyptus trees and between Hwy 1 and the Pacific Ocean, is Old San Simeon. This is a perfect place to rest and refuel after a tour of the Castle.
Here you will find Hearst Winery & Wine Bar, where you can enjoy a glass of cabernet while eating a substantial hamburger or salad at the casual Sebastian’s Cafe. Both the wine bar and cafe are located in the original Sebastian’s General Store built in 1852. The cafe is open from 11 AM – 4 PM daily, with plenty of outdoor dining where you can relax and enjoy the ocean view.
A short distance from the outdoor dining is the Pacific School, a one-room schoolhouse built in 1870 to teach the children of those working at the Hearst Ranch.
Also, close by is the very popular San Simeon State Beach and pier.
Hearst Winery & Wine Bar — Sebastian’s Cafe
442 SLO San Simeon Rd, San Simeon, CA 93452
Elephant Seal Rookery
From Old San Simeon is a highly recommended side trip, only 4.3 miles north on Hwy 1 — it is a “must see” for all nature lovers. The Elephant Seal Rookery & Boardwalk is where you can see nature unfolding at its entertaining best.
Surprisingly, in early 1990 there were no Elephant Seals along the 6-mile stretch of beach next to the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. Then one seal was sighted. Then another. Then another. In 1992, the first cub was born. Today, 23,000 seals call this small portion of coastline their home, although not all at the same time. The number of seals at the rookery ranges from around 5,000 in January to May to less than a thousand in July and August.
The official viewing area, maintained by the Friends of the Elephant Seal, has a large parking lot and a boardwalk with plenty of space for viewing but no facilities.
According to Alan Fillmore, one of the many docents on hand, between mid-December and the end of January, the pregnant females arrive to give birth to their pups, which can weigh around 70 lbs. He said there are more people viewing the seals at this time than any other time of year.
One month after the birthing season, the mating season begins — another popular viewing time. At this time the Alpha males, weighing up to 5,000 lbs, claim their territory and their harem. But this also brings the Beta males and wanna-be Alphas, all aggressively vying for the prize.
During June and July, the seals begin their annual molt and males grow their distinctive noses.
A little known viewing area is the beach at the Vista Point approximately 1 mile south. This is where a lot of the rejected Beta males go, along with many females. “We informally and affectionately call that section of beach – “Loser Beach”” Fillmore said.
Visitor Center & Gift Shop
Plaza del Cavalier
250 San Simeon Avenue, Suite 3B | San Simeon, CA 93452
For a live view of a portion of the Rookery, you can visit their webcam at