Friday, October 26, 2007

Enchanted Evening at Hearst Castle

The rich and famous have always fasinated me, particularly after watching the classic 1941 film Citizen Kane. The movie by Orson Welles traces the life of the fictional Charles Foster Kane, whose rise to wealth and power is eerily similar to the real life of William Randolph Hearst. Hearst like the fictional character was a newspaper publisher, movie producer and one time U.S. Congressman. On a recent family vacation to San Francisco I was close enough to make the journey to see the legendary Hearst Castle located atop La Cuesta Encantada, or the Enchanted Hill.
The Castle is located about 200 miles south of San Francisco, and just a bit further if you are driving from Los Angeles. Arriving at the visitor center in San Simeon, I looked to the distant mountain and could clearly see the twin spires of the Spanish styled Casa Grande, Hearst's Castle. The view to the 1600 foot mountain top was like the opening scene in Citizen Kane that depicted the Kane mansion Xanadu built high on a private mountain.
The castle or "ranch" as Hearst often called his estate, is too large to see in one tour, so the California State Parks, operators of the estate, offer five tours, each highlighting a separate area of the house and gardens. Each tour lasts about 1 hour and 45 minutes except for the evening tour which lasts 2 hours and 10 minutes. Cost for all tours, except the evening tour, is $20 for adults and $10 for children ages 6-17. The evening tour costs $30 for adults and $15 for children.
I reserved our tickets online for the evening tour. The bus takes the five mile run up the long winding driveway to the top where we are greeted by the docents. They divide us into small groups for our personally guided tour. The evening tour is a special interpretive experience where we will see people from the Living History Program, dressed in period clothing from the 1940's, renacting what a typical evening may have been like at the estate.
The estate includes the 60,645 square foot main house, Casa Grande, several guesthouses, and two fabulous pools, the Neptune and Roman. Construction began on the massive estate in 1919 when Hearst hired architect Julia Morgan to design his "getaway" residence. Construction continued for nearly three decades, and was never quite finished. By 1947 however, Heart and Morgan had created an estate with 165 rooms located on 127 acres of garderns, terraces and walkways. The main house has thirty-five fireplaces and forty-one bathrooms. The view from the enchanted hill overlooks the Pacific Ocean and vistas that were once his 250,000 acre estate.
Our first stop is the Neptune pool, with a Greco-Roman facade, greek and roman statuary, Greek columns and on this day a very large empty pool. Normally the pool is spring fed with up to 350,000 gallons of crystal clear blue water. However, on this day the pool, designed and built in the 20's and 30's to withstand earthquakes, was being repaired as the result of an earthquake. In 2003 the epicenter of the 6.5 quake was only miles the estate. Even without the water the pool area is a work of art.
Touring the guesthouse Casa del Sol, where such notables as Calvin Coolidge, Winston Churchill, and Charlie Chaplin stayed, we encountered one of the first docents from the Living History Program. She was an elderly woman sitting at a vanity brushing her long hair as if getting ready for bed. She talked with us about life at the estate when Hearst and his companion Marion Davies were in residence. We later learned that she wasn't reciting from a script but was recalling memories from her childhood when her mother worked at the estate.
The museum quality art and furnishings from throughout Europe and the world make every room come to life with a personality of its own. Almost every ceiling was once a part of a church, monastary or castle from Europe or Asia. The main dining room looks like it is right out of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from the Harry Potter movies, although a smaller scale. As it turns out the set designers from the movie reportedly visited Casa Grande to capture the look and size of the Hearst dining table and decor.
My favorite rooms were the library and gothic study. The library is stocked with hundreds of books and collectibles. The gothic study is where Hearst would have private meetings and stay up late reviewing his newspapers, communicating across the country with editors. The room looks like something out of Bruce Wayne's batman mansion. The imported ceiling, dark wood paneling, huge conference table and oil paintings give this study quite the executive look. By this time in the tour, I realized that while Orson Welles may never have visited the estate he was well informed of its contents. The opening narrative for the movie sets the stage for the wealth of the fictional Kane but could equally be a description of Hearst proclivity to collecting: "...a collection of everything so big it can never be catalogued or appraised; enough for ten museums; the loot of the world."
I don't think the tour can be overstated with all the grandeur of the estate and enough stories to fill a tabloid paper for years. Hearst ha so much money was such an avid collector he once asked one of his agents to find a particular piece of art, to travel throughout the world if necessary, to track it down and buy it for his collection. After months of travel throughout Europe and the United States chasing down lead after lead the agent finaly found the coveted piece of art. It was housed in one of Heart's own warehouses where he stored it along with crate after crate of items he bought or had purchased for him.
The final stop on our evening tour was the indoor Roman pool. This pool is ten feet deep from end to end, not for wading obvisously. The pool is modeled after a Roman bath from the early 200th centrury and is surrounded by eight statues of gods and goddesses. The pool, floor, walls and ceiling are covered with thousands of one inch glass tiles inlaid with 24k gold. The blue and clear glass give a shimmering surreal cast to the entire room. The pool is the last stop for the tour and looking back was over too quickly.

As we lined up to get on the bus I glanced into a dimly lit storage room, and for a moment, though I saw an old sled leaning against the wall, partially covered by some old boxes. I hesitated, wanting to see the brand name on the sled, could it be I wondered? Then I shook my head to clear my thoughts, perhaps I had seen too much of Xanadu, or was it the Hearst Castle? The sheer vastness and over the top decor of the estate must have temporarily blurred my distinction between movie fantasy and reality. I look forward to a return trip and a chance to take all five tours.