The monuments and the myths of Hearst Castle are a fitting legacy for one of the most outstanding and controversial characters of the twentieth century, William Randolph Hearst.
‘Hearst Castle’ is an extract from Stephen’s latest book ‘Three Harleys, Three Aussies, One American Dream’The tour bus trundles along a twisty road over rolling hills scorched brown by the California sun. Windows rattle as it climbs towards a clump of oak trees surrounding a cluster of Spanish-style buildings on a hilltop. Lush gardens come into view, sweeping up to an imposing stone mansion crowned by two tall towers that shine starkly white against a cloudless blue sky.I step down from the bus to climb a flight of terra-cotta tiled stairs to a marble paved terrace, where sparkling water cascades from a circular stone fountain adorned with nymphs and cherubs. Clipped boxwood hedges border colourful flower beds that arc around the curve of the hill. A tour guide points out statues set among the shrubbery — classical Greek, sensual Renaissance, and exotic Egyptian. Impressive, although when you turn around, it is the view that is most striking. A spectacular sweep of azure ocean rolls in to a rugged coastline that slopes up across sunburnt grasslands to the dense green redwood forests of San Simeon State Park.George Hearst, an owner of gold and silver mines, bought this 250,000-acre Rancho Piedra Blanca property with its fourteen miles of privately owned coastline in 1865. He built a secluded Victorian villa where his family often holidayed. His son, William Randolph Hearst, known as WR, spent happy boyhood days trekking along creeks and camping on hills that overlooked the ocean. When WR inherited the property in 1919, he decided to build a new home for his wife, Millicent Willson, and their five sons. In initial discussions with the architect, WR is reported to have said, “I would like to build something upon the hill at San Simeon. 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.” The resulting Hearst Castle is a 156-room complex covering 90,000 square feet of buildings, set in 127 acres of gardens. The main house, Casa Grande, has fifty-six bedrooms, sixty-one bathrooms, and nineteen sitting rooms. Adjacent are three guest cottages, a cinema, tennis courts, and two swimming pools. This sprawling estate includes a staff village, a seven-mile water pipeline, a diesel-generating plant, and an airstrip.
Saturday, April 01, 2017
The enormity of the estate becomes apparent as I continue to climb stairs and stroll on through lush gardens to reach the Neptune Pool. This outdoor swimming pool is an inviting circle of sparkling water flanked by shady colonnades set into the hillside. Statues of swans stand at the water’s edge marking the four points of the compass quadrants. Below the water dark tiles trace a geometric pattern on a blue bottom, and stepladders fashioned from solid marble sink below the surface, tempting a swimmer to take a dip.The centerpiece of the colonnade is a Roman temple façade of six marble pillars twenty feet tall supporting a capstone carved with classical characters. This is not a re-creation but an authentic ancient temple, dismantled stone-by-stone in Europe, and shipped halfway across the world to be reassembled on this American hillside. A special hillside, one WR called “La Cuesta Encantada” — “The Enchanted Slope.”Climbing the final flight of stairs, the Casa Grande stands before me, a grand house of dazzling white stone with octagonal towers fashioned in ornate Spanish Baroque architecture and inlaid with blue mosaics that lend Moorish Byzantine accents. Adding further contrasting counterpoints are Gothic heraldic frescoes over a great iron gate embellished with crests of gold leaf.The montage of mismatches continues as I step into the cool gloom of a grand banqueting hall where a high carved wood panel ceiling is supported by bare sandstone walls hung with dark tapestries; drab flags fly listlessly from ornamental brass poles and in between, alabaster reliefs depict classical Greek scenes. To one side a solid wooden table large enough to seat thirty is set with gleaming cutlery lit by solid silver candlesticks three feet high, while scattered around is an eclectic collection of statues, paintings, and stuffed animals. This cavernous chamber has the appearance of a Scottish castle and the atmosphere of a horror movie.
Footfalls on stone floors echo down a rabbit warren of corridors as I follow the tour guide past an odd collection of artifacts arranged like the archives of a museum. I wander wide-eyed through a succession of rooms: a billiard room with three green-beige tables aligned on a parquet floor below gold chandeliers as if it were a London gentlemen’s club, a private cinema lined with shelves of books where WR would screen films from his own Cosmopolitan Studios. I finally arrive at a magnificent indoor swimming pool that is a masterpiece of Romanesque design. Around the sunken pool, mosaics of iridescent blue and burnished gold shimmer on the walls, bright crests adorn arches, and swirling scrolls of gilt glint on beams. The still surface mirrors the glittering designs, making it difficult to distinguish where water finishes and walls begin. WR’s desire to conjure up impressions of a Roman bathhouse has created a pool fit for an emperor. WR gathered ideas and objects for Hearst Castle on his extensive travels. I picture him as a magpie flying around the world picking up interesting pieces to carry back to his nest high on this San Simeon hill. This acquisitive collector gathered not only objects of art, but also shipped back carved monastery ceilings, sculpted church frescoes, and massive engraved monuments. Hearst Castle was not built to house WR’s art collection. Rather, the castle was constructed and then continually enlarged and extended to accommodate truckloads of treasures he plundered from ancient sites, salvaged from decaying dynasties, and bought at top-dollar auctions. The Neptune Pool and terrace, for example, was torn down and rebuilt three times before WR considered it complete. No wonder construction continued unabated for almost thirty years.
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