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Up The Road: Julia Morgan And The Enchantment Of Hearst Castle

Justin Ennis

Hearst San Simeon State Historic Monument on the Central California coast is one of those places you just have to see, no matter what you think of the man or the pleasure palace he built for himself, his mistress, and their constant Hollywood visitors.

Hearst Castle was designed by Berkeley architect Julia Morgan. Her collaboration with William Randolph Hearst spanned three decades, though the work was never really finished. Even so, Hearst’s life is somehow fully expressed here, in the country’s most ostentatious and theatrical temple to obscene wealth. After touring Hearst’s pleasure palace, you understand why many people—including Hearst—believed Orson Welles’s satirical masterpiece Citizen Kane was a thinly disguised biopic.

The buildings themselves are odd yet handsome hallmarks of Spanish Renaissance architecture. The centerpiece La Casa Grande alone has 100 rooms, including a movie theater, billiards room, two libraries, and 31 bathrooms. These rooms are adorned with silk banners, fine Belgian and French tapestries, Norman fireplaces, European choir stalls, and ornately carved ceilings virtually stolen from continental monasteries after World War I. (Kane, in the movie, is called the Great Accumulator.) The furnishings and art Hearst collected from around the world complete the picture of his life, one that includes everything but humor, warmth, human understanding, and grace.

So: It’s hard to imagine how Hearst’s vision would have taken shape had it not been for architect Julia Morgan, responsible for almost every detail of his rambling 165-room castle. This 95-pound, teetotaling, workaholic woman was UC Berkeley’s first female engineering graduate, California’s first female architect, and the first woman to graduate from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Morgan’s work with Hearst departed dramatically from her belief that buildings should be unobtrusive, the cornerstone of her brilliant but equally unobtrusive career. “My style,” she said to those bewildered by the contradiction posed by Hearst’s castle, “is to please my client.” Pleasing her client in this case was quite a task. Hearst arbitrarily and habitually changed his mind, all the while complaining about slow progress and high costs.

So: Come see how Julia Morgan enchanted Hearst nonetheless as she created permanent storage for his ever-growing museum collection. Take a few tours, while you’re here, and wear sensible shoes—lots of walking, and stairs.

If you haven’t been here before, the Grand Rooms Tour offers a good introduction. The Upstairs Suites Tour and Cottages & Kitchens Tour offer more intimate views of castle life. Other tours focus on the art collection, and Julia Morgan’s work here. Or organize a private tour, to focus on your own interests. Try the seasonal evening tour, to dress up in 1930s attire and otherwise go living-history. The holiday tour lets you visit the castle at its Christmas cheeriest.

After your tour, remember to lift a glass of your favorite beverage to William Randolph Hearst—or Charles Foster Kane, if you prefer—keeping in mind the complaint from actor David Niven that, with Hearst as host, the wine flowed “like glue.” After that, Niven was the only castle guest allowed free access to the wine cellar. Bottom’s up!

Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.