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La cuesta encantada: Inside the art collection of California's only castle 

The road twists and winds past crashing waves and rocky cliffs on the left. Rolling green hills are but a blur on the right, with the occasional frolicking black and white striped zebra. As the ocean becomes smaller in the rearview mirror, the house on the hilltop grows. The journey to Hearst Castle in San Simeon provides a good chunk of the fantastical feelings of otherworldliness that a visit there brings. 

click to enlarge WAR ROOM:  From his study, Hearst ran his media empire. The painting of him was done by a childhood friend, while the lampshades are made from the pages of Gregorian monks’ chant books. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • WAR ROOM: From his study, Hearst ran his media empire. The painting of him was done by a childhood friend, while the lampshades are made from the pages of Gregorian monks’ chant books.

When a guard opens the gate, allowing myself and New Times photographer Jayson Mellom to drive up the hill on our own, it still feels like we’re breaking the rules somehow. It’s a small beginning to the unusual amount of access we’ll have to the castle today as part of the new Art of San Simeon tour, designed to showcase the collection of 23,000 art pieces and 10,000 books at the only California state park that’s also an accredited art museum. While one of the regular tours lasts about an hour and ranges from $25 to $35 per person, the new art-focused tour runs two hours, costs $100 per person, and is intimate, capped at eight people per tour. 

As a Central Coast native, this isn’t my first go-round with the legacy that the famous newspaper publisher left to us. Still, with each visit I’m struck anew by the opulence of the castle and how there’s just too much to really see in one trip. From the architecture to the fountains to the paintings and detailed ceilings inside, who can say where the art really begins and ends anyway? 

click to enlarge INTERPRETING THE HISTORY OF HEARST:  Ty Smith, chief of museum interpretation for Hearst Castle, explains how William Randolph Hearst developed a passion for art during the new Art of San Simeon Tour. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • INTERPRETING THE HISTORY OF HEARST: Ty Smith, chief of museum interpretation for Hearst Castle, explains how William Randolph Hearst developed a passion for art during the new Art of San Simeon Tour.

Ty Smith, chief of museum interpretation and a former tour guide from his Cal Poly days, meets us at the top to show us around. We walk past the famous and unusually empty outdoor Neptune pool that’s undergoing repairs as Smith explains that the art wasn’t necessarily brought in to decorate the castle. 

“It’s part desire to build an idyllic outdoor fantasy for his visitors that come here,” Smith says. “But it’s also designed to be the perfect backdrop for his art collection. You walk around this hilltop Mediterranean village and you look up at what looks like a cathedral. There’s no church going on inside, but it’s a really great backdrop for the Renaissance and gothic art.”

Early sparks of passion

We know a lot about William Randolph Hearst, the man behind the castle. Born to parents George Hearst and Phoebe Apperson Hearst in 1863 in San Francisco, William Hearst would go on to take the family fortune (they made their money in silver), build his extensive newspaper empire (and become the father of sensational, yellow journalism—yay!), and in his 50s, he would begin to build the castle. But what, aside from a desire to show off his wealth, led Hearst to fill every corner of his mansion (and some storage areas, too) with the finest art money could buy? 

For that, Smith says, we can go back to his mother. Phoebe, a former schoolteacher, wanted to be sure her son had the best education possible. And at the time that meant going on a grand tour of European art, history, and culture. So the mother-son duo set off when Hearst was 10 years old. 

click to enlarge ETHEREAL:  Because of the cathedral-esque exterior of Casa Grande, many visitors assume that Hearst was deeply religious. In fact, while he identified as “a Christian of no particular sort,” he rarely attended church. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • ETHEREAL: Because of the cathedral-esque exterior of Casa Grande, many visitors assume that Hearst was deeply religious. In fact, while he identified as “a Christian of no particular sort,” he rarely attended church.

“He developed a—passion isn’t strong enough of a word,” Smith says. “His mom called it a mania. She wrote a letter to her husband after they visited the Louvre in France and said, ‘It was hard to convince young Willy we couldn’t buy everything we saw.’”

Hearst and his architect, Julia Morgan, took his early childhood experiences and used them as inspiration to build his dream home on ranchland inherited from his father that he later added to (at its peak the ranch was about 250,000 acres). They started in 1919 with guest cottages like Casa Del Sol, the guesthouse named for its view of the setting sun. 

“They wanted it to evoke Southern Spain. They wanted you to go there and recall Granada,” Smith says.

Even from the outside, small details like an intricate red wood-framed gold and green Moorish privacy screen are visible. Old, otherworldly items were carefully chosen to give the estate a look of not only wealth but also of having stood through the ages. Some of the wood ceilings in the castle were purposely maimed with shotguns and hammers to achieve that distressed, antique look. 

The sitting room of Casa Del Sol is filled with warm hues, from the deep red wedding chests to the golden ceilings. Portraits of stately children hang on the opposite walls of the room. In one, a young girl in a jeweled silver gown with a puffed-up neckpiece stares somberly back at me. Hearst’s ancestors, perhaps? Nope. That’s a common guess and part of the desired effect of the artwork. They’re the children of King Phillip III of Spain.

“The style of the time was to emulate a European country home where you would see the layering of a family’s collection over 300 or 400 years,” Smith says. “You’d look up at walls and see pictures of your ancestors or maybe there’d be a Spanish writing desk that great-great-grandfather had bought or wedding trunks that you had added to the collection.”

Building the dream

We haven’t even made it to the main house and my head is already spinning. How much did it cost Hearst to build the castle and fill it with the finest art? How much would it cost today? Would it even be possible to build Hearst Castle today? (Spoiler on the last question: definitely no.)

click to enlarge ANCESTRAL VIBES:  Casa del Sol is modeled after a European country home in Hearst’s day, where you might see paintings of the inhabitants’ ancestors. Lacking those sorts of heirlooms, Hearst settled for paintings of the children of King Phillip III of Spain. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • ANCESTRAL VIBES: Casa del Sol is modeled after a European country home in Hearst’s day, where you might see paintings of the inhabitants’ ancestors. Lacking those sorts of heirlooms, Hearst settled for paintings of the children of King Phillip III of Spain.

Hearst paid roughly $3.5 million for all the art he acquired and another $6.5 million to build the residence in the early 1900s. Let that sink in.

“You could never do it again,” Smith said. “The land isn’t available. The construction would be astronomical. And if you could afford the art, you couldn’t find it in this quantity.”

Roman sarcophagi and Egyptian statues sprinkled across the property would never make it out of their homelands now, thanks to stronger national antiquity laws. But Hearst built his art collection in between the World Wars. And the Great Depression hit earlier, harder, and longer in Europe, leading churches and great families to sell beloved art pieces and family heirlooms, often to American buyers like Hearst.

“European art was flooding the American market, and he was getting a good price,” Smith says. “European institutions and churches are having to make really tough decisions about what to keep and what to let go of.”

A different view

click to enlarge THE HEARST KINGDOM:  A balcony at Casa Grande overlooks the castle and a breathtaking view of San Simeon. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • THE HEARST KINGDOM: A balcony at Casa Grande overlooks the castle and a breathtaking view of San Simeon.

Europeans tell Smith that the castle is so Californian while natives from the Golden State proclaim how European it is. Smith laughs. The truth is, both forces are at play here, and Hearst knew that when he decided to make his Central Coast home emulate a Mediterranean villa. (Meanwhile, his home in Northern California was built to match a residence in the Bavarian Forest of Germany.) While actual castles have that genuine look of being weathered and were built as fortresses, Hearst Castle still shines like a new penny and was built solely for pleasure. 

Classic palm trees dot the property in plain view of the main house, Casa Grande, which visitors assume is a cathedral. It certainly looks the part, with cherubs, towers, and a gilded gate. 

click to enlarge FITTING IN:  This 14th century paneled ceiling was originally from Teruel, a town in the Aragon region of Spain, but it was altered to fit in Hearst’s bedroom. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • FITTING IN: This 14th century paneled ceiling was originally from Teruel, a town in the Aragon region of Spain, but it was altered to fit in Hearst’s bedroom.

Still, while Hearst had the benefit of money and a cheap art market on his side, he couldn’t get everything he wanted. A family of four poses in front of a copycat statue Hearst commissioned to look just like Antonio Canova’s The Three Graces. He failed to get his hands on the real thing. The trio of forever-young white marble ladies hold each other in comfort as selfie sticks are manipulated to get the perfect angle.

“It’s an interesting dynamic because they [selfie sticks] do cause issues, but for the most part people want to curate their own experience,” Smith says. “And from my perspective, it’s cool to see people engage with the place in that way.”

Once inside Casa Grande, we step into an old wood-paneled 1927 Otis elevator that former first lady Grace Coolidge got stuck in for 45 minutes before thinking to yodel so help would come. After that, Hearst added a phone to the elevator. We venture out of it and round the corner, past the display of old Hearst newspapers like the New York Daily News and the San Francisco Examiner, and into the study where he ran his media empire. Books line the walls. Lamps cast light through shades molded from the parchment of Gregorian monks’ chant books. A painting of this castle’s king hangs on the far wall, created by a childhood friend. 

click to enlarge IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS:  Ornate, gilded ceilings like this one adorn many of the rooms at Hearst Castle. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS: Ornate, gilded ceilings like this one adorn many of the rooms at Hearst Castle.

In Hearst’s place of business, it’s hard to ignore the inevitable—that a guy who built something beautiful could be pretty ugly. He had an open affair with actress Marion Davies, stoked the flames of sensational journalism, had a cutthroat political career as a congressman in New York, and was for the internment of Japanese people during World War II.

“You try to do a good job of presenting the complexity of this person. But a lot of the stories that we tell are of Hearst the host, and he was a pretty good guy,” Smith says. “It was great to be on his guest list and sitting at his table. But if you were his political enemy or a Japanese person in California … history is that way. You have to tell the warts-and-all story.”

We walk toward the master bedroom. My eye catches what appears to be a beautiful armoire. Atop it sits the sculpture of the upper body of a bronze Jesus with gold hair, a tunic, and a lamb in one hand. But once upon a time, it was built to hold one of the Catholic Church’s prized possessions: a piece of a saint (perhaps a strand of hair) or at the very least, something the saint had touched.

click to enlarge NEXT TO SAINTLY:  This reliquary once housed part of an actual saint, like a piece of hair or an item like a book that belonged to a saint, before a church or religious institution sold it to survive the depression in Europe. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • NEXT TO SAINTLY: This reliquary once housed part of an actual saint, like a piece of hair or an item like a book that belonged to a saint, before a church or religious institution sold it to survive the depression in Europe.

“This reliquary was sold during the depression in Europe [likely, sans relic] to keep a church or religious institution afloat,” Smith says. 

Hearst’s actual bedroom, like the rest of the house, is filled to the brim with a combination of old, classic art and new, comfy furniture from department stores in Los Angeles. Look up, and the 19th century wood-paneled ceiling shows colorful, almost cartoon-like renderings of frolicking centaurs, knights, and men with books. It, similar to other items in the house, is from the gothic period. The ceiling once belonged to another place across the pond—somewhere in Teruel, a town in the Aragon region of Spain—and Hearst had workers painstakingly fit it into the ceiling of his bedroom. 

Tucked away in the corner is an inconspicuous painting of the virgin and child that I might have missed if Smith didn’t point it out. It’s small, maybe 7 by 12 inches. It was a gift from an employee who didn’t know what it was: from the workshop of master Italian painter Duccio di Buoninsegna. 

click to enlarge ART FOR DAYS:  Silk flags representing different religious districts in Sienna and Flemish tapestries that are centuries old adorn the Refectory in Casa Grande. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • ART FOR DAYS: Silk flags representing different religious districts in Sienna and Flemish tapestries that are centuries old adorn the Refectory in Casa Grande.

When asked for an estimate of its worth, Smith would only say, “A lot.”

Downstairs in the Refectory, where Hearst entertained guests, colorful silk flags representing different religious districts in Sienna hang from the ceilings, and intricate Flemish tapestries (some that are 750 years old) depicting battle scenes and men gallantly riding off on their horses, adorn the walls. But on the dining table sit small, humble bottles of Heinz ketchup.

“When you’re invited to the ranch, he knows there’s going to be this level of opulence, but when you’re sitting down to dinner there’s ranch food, store-bought condiments, and paper napkins on the table,” Smith says.

Meanwhile in the Assembly Room, where guests played card games or pool, Hearst more than made up for not being able to get his hands on an original statue of Canova’s The Three Graces. In 1923, Hearst landed a Canova original—a Venus Italica, the shy, maidenly version of the goddess. One hand clutches at her dress while the other covers her breast, obstructing the view of lustful onlookers. It’s one of three versions the sculptor was commissioned to make of Venus after Napoleon Bonaparte took the Venus de’ Medici from Italy. 

A FEW OF HEARST'S FAVORITE THINGS:  The Art of San Simeon tour runs through the end of June and is currently offered daily at 2 p.m. (twice daily at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. starting May 1). The tour runs two hours, costs $100 per person, and each group is capped at eight people. Visit hearstcastle.org for more information.
  • A FEW OF HEARST'S FAVORITE THINGS: The Art of San Simeon tour runs through the end of June and is currently offered daily at 2 p.m. (twice daily at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. starting May 1). The tour runs two hours, costs $100 per person, and each group is capped at eight people. Visit hearstcastle.org for more information.

But my favorite part of the tour is when we go off the beaten path, up the stairs, and literally through a window onto an unofficial patio with roof and tower access. It’s not a normal part of the tour, but it gives you the best view of the castle grounds surrounded by a swirl of green ranchland and blue coastline. It’s an important reminder that the art collection isn’t just the individual paintings and sculptures that Hearst carefully amassed over his lifetime; the whole place in and of itself is a masterpiece.

“Each individual art piece is just a brush stroke in the larger composition, the room, in the way it’s arranged, and of the hilltop,” Smith says. “I’m always looking at it that way, rather than at one individual thing.” 

Ryah Cooley is off to the castle at rcooley@newtimesslo.com

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