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FEATURE:Hearst Castle’s new Julia Morgan tour highlights a woman before her time and the joy of collaboration 


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The California State Parks system lost $32 million in revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic from Hearst Castle alone.

Between 700,000 and 850,000 people visit Hearst Castle every year, according to Dan Falat, superintendent of State Parks’ San Luis Obispo Coast District, which oversees the castle. Statewide, the park is a “significant operation,” he added, and revenues from his district primarily come from the castle.

The reasons people come are pretty obvious: Old Hollywood glamour lingers, the views of the coast are unrivaled, the architecture is stunning, and the buildings and grounds are full of history. The castle was built to display artifacts and art pieces purchased from countries all over the world during the economic crisis that followed the first world war.

“Post World War I, to be able to have all those relics and be able to bring them together,” Falat said. “The history in time of being able to bring everything together will never happen again.”

It’s lucky for everyone, then, that the park reopened to the public in April 2022.

And you’ll be happy to hear that the late Alex Trebec’s voice still guides bus riders from the visitors center at the base of the Hearst property up to La Cuesta Encantada.

In 2020, the estate built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst Jr. and architect Julia Morgan was set to commemorate its centennial. The pandemic had other plans, though, closing the park and pushing the castle’s 100th anniversary celebration forward a couple of years. As part of memorializing the past 10 decades of history, extravagance, art, and architecture, the park’s offering a special Morgan-focused tour of Hearst Castle through the end of the year (at least).


Hearst Castle Museum Director Cara O’Brien said that during the summer, the intimate two-hour tour (eight people, max) will run once a day at 9 a.m. Visitors will be able to explore the hilltop without a lot of other people around, getting the chance to view architectural drawings, family photos, and rarely seen areas that highlight Morgan’s gift for design, as well as learn more about her life and who she was.

Each guide who takes people on the Morgan tour does it a little differently, but everyone is laser-focused on the architect’s contributions to the castle, to her craft, to American society (she worked on 700 projects in her lifetime), and as a female working in a man’s world. The tour highlights the talented people she hired, the craftsmanship of their work, and the way she was able to meld her talent with Hearst’s ideas to build the collection of buildings, terraces, gardens, and pools overlooking San Simeon.

“It’s a phenomenal story, and it really highlights the collaboration with William Randolph Hearst—the intellectual collaboration,” O’Brien said. “Just a fascinating story, how she adapted to his changeable mind. And how she was always able to come through. … Their correspondence is so funny. It’s so beautiful. … Just their banter, and the ideas sparking off each other.”

Morgan created about 10,000 architectural sketches for everything that was built on the hill. She and Hearst had a similar vision, a similar eye for symmetry, and exchanged more than 1,000 telegrams throughout the duration of the project, said tour guide Sharon Foelz.

Foelz called the castle Morgan’s “crowning achievement” during a tour in April.

She pointed out the ceiling tiles of Casa Del Mar, one of the first cottages built on the hill. A conservationist was working to stabilize the gold gilt around the edges of the hand-plastered, -painted, and -gilded tiles. Hearst often replicated the ceilings he found in books at a secondhand bookstore in LA. He would tear the images from the books and send them to Morgan, who would get to work.

About 95 percent of all the art and artifacts displayed at the castle were purchased during construction, Foelz said, and Morgan would design rooms specifically for the objects that would go into them. Windows, doors, sculptures, paintings, mantels, tiles, ancient artifacts—all purchased in the wake of World War I from European and Asian countries.


“Thirteen rail cars full of objects from all the ends of the earth,” Foelz said. “It was quite an undertaking.”

The Julia Morgan tour is $100, and Museum Director O’Brien recommends booking the tour in advance via In addition, Hearst Castle is also offering its standard Grand Rooms, Upstairs Suites, and Cottages and Kitchens tours, which are $30 for adults and $15 for children.

It already feels as if the pandemic is in the rearview, according to O’Brien, who said the park has been busy and still has some restrictions in place.

“Staff is elated. And our visitors are happy and the gardens look phenomenal, and it’s oddly like it kind of never happened. We’re just doing what we always did,” she said.


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