Imagine an ‘enchanted hill’ where cherished family camping trips took place, transformed into a vast and luxurious castle, when boy becomes businessman. But with all the riches money could buy, would the magic of those childhood memories ever be recaptured?
This may seem a tale worthy of Hollywood and, indeed, Orson Welles captures something of its poignancy in Citizen Kane, a film inspired by the extraordinary life of William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper magnate once-described as ‘the most hated man in America’. For a modern equivalent, if Trump and Rupert Murdoch had a love-child we might be getting somewhere close.
Hearst (1863-1951) was the son of a wealthy mining engineer and took over a newspaper his father had won as a gambling debt in 1887. A pioneer of ‘yellow’ (populist) journalism and ambitious to boot, Hearst was fond of writing mercurial op-eds. He branched into politics and ran for President.
Using family money, he purchased a string of 28 newspapers, and for a while the ‘Hearst Group’ dominated the print industry while courting financial ruin. Following the Wall Street Crash, the company and assets were restructured in the 1930s.
Despite these problems, Hearst still managed to spend millions building his dream home, equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles, between 1919 and 1947. With architect Julia Morgan – the first woman admitted to the school of Beaux Arts in Paris and the first licensed female architect in California – Hearst took his ‘enchanted hill’ and created an insanely opulent castle with 42 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, a movie theatre, library, three swimming pools, beautiful views over the California coast, and even a planned private zoo.
Guests included Hollywood legends Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers, Greta Garbo, Buster Keaton, Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, as well as political leaders Calvin Coolidge and Winston Churchill and writers P. G. Wodehouse and Bernard Shaw.
Today’s visitors must take a winding bus trip up the hill from the Visitor Centre to the house and join a guided tour. Various themes are available, such as the Hearst art collection (he was a life-long and passionate collector of all sorts of objects), the ‘Grand Rooms’ or ‘Upper Suites’. Tread in the footsteps of the great and the good who were lucky enough to be invited to the castle and its guest ‘cottages’, linked to the main house by a paved walkway deliberately designed to have a striking effect on arrival.
‘Striking’ is perhaps an understatement. A colossal four-storey western façade is modelled on the Royal Alcazars gateway in Seville, with twin bell towers inspired by Santa Maria Maggiore in Ronda. Hearst had a taste for antique style and filled the house and gardens with Roman sarcophagi, Greek vases, tapestries, and art works, including by Tintoretto.
But he was not afraid to include modern touches. One of the many peculiarities of the place is its lack of grand staircases, with upper floors reached by plain poured concrete stairwells, or elevators. Morgan ensured this and other earthquake-proofing were high on the agenda. Another surprising feature is the wired sound system, designed to allow guests to select music to be piped from a phonograph in the basement.
The California state department took over the estate at the family’s request in 1958, seven years after Hearst’s death, although the family retain a connection to the place, with his great-granddaughter marrying there last year. At the same time, the pools were finally opened to swimmers (as long as they had $1,250 per person to shell out for the privilege!).
The ‘Neptune Pool’, with its Birth of Venus sculpture and 17 changing rooms has been described as ‘the most sumptuous swimming pool on earth’, but when I visited, it was the exquisite indoor Roman Pool that really caught my imagination – a vision of blue symmetry with Murano glass gold-leaf tiles.
Work on the chateau was never completed, due to Hearst’s failing health – a tragedy for Julia Morgan, who catered to the man’s constantly evolving dreams for thirty years (alongside countless other projects) and exchanged nearly 4000 pieces of correspondence with him about their ideas. When she travelled to the site, she would leave on a Friday afternoon to take an eight-hour train journey, followed by a 50-mile drive.
Little is known about Morgan’s personal life and it seems she threw herself into her work, living modestly. Although the house has been criticised and the wisdom of constructing an Italian villa on the Californian coast questioned, Morgan’s legacy has been re-evaluated in recent years and she was posthumously awarded the American Institute of Architects’ highest honour in 2014.