A Very Vintage Roadtrip: Hearst Castle


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One of the most liberating aspects of taking a road trip alone is being able to entirely dictate your schedule. Driving down the PCH from San Francisco, about an hour outside of San Luis Obispo I saw a sign telling me that seals where about. Seals you say? *Screeching handbrake turn down a gravel track*. And hark! There were indeed seals. Tons of the flabby things, baking like gargantuan slugs in the Californian heat. Apparently they were elephant seals, I found this out by earwigging the volunteer guide whose responsibility it was to answer silly people’s questions. One thing I’ll say for elephant seals, they sure are smelly. And noisy. They enjoy lying around on beaches, getting into fights and shagging prodigiously. They bear a striking resemblance to British tourists on the Costa Brava.

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After leaving the seals (Latin name: Sealus Holidayus Makeus Britannia) I pootled along for about five minutes before seeing a sign for Hearst Castle. Xanadu you say? *Screeching handbrake turn up a distinguished looking driveway*. I had heard about Hearst Castle of course. I knew William Randolph and his egotistical albatross of a dwelling was the inspiration for Citizen Kane and I knew that those old walls sure had seen some sights. However I never thought that I would actually be able to go there! I assumed it had been knocked down years ago, or that it was a private residence shrouded behind colossal walls topped with security cameras. I didn’t imagine that there would be a visitor’s centre and an audio tour of the place. Shows what I know, fool that I am.


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I have to say I was a touch surprised that I couldn’t actually see the castle from the road. I had read that it was pretty big, so where the hell was it? Then I looked up the acres of rocky Californian hillside stretching out as far as the eye could see away from the San Simeon coast and noticed a small white speck perched between some trees. Surely not? But yes surely so dear reader. The castle sits miles away from the sea along twisty turning road up which busloads of curious tourists are ferried daily. George Hearst, William’s father originally bought the land for raising cattle and the young William Randolph along with his mother would traverse the rocky terrain on horseback to the campsite at the summit, whereupon the family would spend several months ranching. In 1915, Hearst, now in his fifties, inherited his father’s vast fortune he decided to build a small ranch-style dwelling on the original site because he was sick of roughing it. He drafted in architect Julia Morgan and between them they set forth on a building project which would rumble on for the next thirty years. The first job was to build a road to the summit. Upon first arriving at the site Morgan refused to travel by horse because she was terrified of them, so the horses where strapped to her car and she was dragged up the hillside.
From afar the building looks impressive. But upon closer inspection you can see unfinished edges, mantles and lintels that don’t match and building materials swapped out mid-course. Much of the building is constructed of reinforced concrete with a decorative façade placed on top (all of the metaphors about the jazz age, Hollywood and the man himself are too obvious!) Hearst was a man of changeable tastes. Very little appears to have been thought through and basically he just liked to bloody well build stuff. Two floors, became three, became four. Bedrooms were added, split and divided again depending on whim. Doors, windows, wings, were all moved, altered or abandoned intermittently. All in all the place feels like a bit of a mess. A nice mess to be sure, but still a hotchpotch. The fruits of a man with limited concentration and unlimited wealth.

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Hearst was enamoured with European art and architecture and the ‘ranch’, formally christened La Cuesta Encantada by Hearst but nicked named ‘The Ranch at San Simeon’, was built in the Spanish revival style, with Baroque influences. The interior was furnished with the works Hearst had loved when seen in situ as a younger man during a holiday with his mother as he set about buying up half the antiquities on the continent by way of art dealers in New York, including ceilings, floors, paintings, velum covered lamps, books, pottery and furniture. What he couldn’t buy, he faked. If only one Florentine door circa 1600 was available, he would have another commissioned so that the pair could sit aside a canopied bed, giving the room symmetry.
While the white exterior of the ranch shines out against the azure blue and lush green of the surrounding landscape, the interior feels oppressive with dark wood and gilt encrusting the narrow stone hallways and low ceilings. Thick antique rugs pad the floors and ominously heavy artworks drip from the walls. All in all it feels contradictory, a observation I mentioned to a guide who in turn pointed out that it made sense when considering the Spanish heritage of the Californian coast. While this is certainly true in part, this explanation only takes us so far as it seems that Hearst’s own tastes dictated the decoration more than any deep rooted cultural affiliation to the area’s history.

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Of course beyond the building itself it is the activities that took place there that matter most. That’s where the history is at. You can keep the Italian masters, I wanted to see Marion Davies’ bedroom, which of course was situated across the hall from Hearst’s, despite him having some pretty stuffy views about unmarried couples sharing bedrooms, walking that ever thin line of hypocrisy oft prevalent in the personal lives of the rich and famous in the early part of the 20th century.

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Everyone went to the Ranch. Invitations were highly sought-after and reserved for the most notable folks of the day; Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Calvin Coolridge, Garbo, Crawford and Gable. Carry Grant stayed in every room in the house, and there are between 24 and 56 depending on who you ask, so you can see how much of a regular visitor he was. They would come for long weekends, parties and Christmas celebrations. The fancy dress soirées were apparently legendary, with Hearst sending out for racks of costumes to be shipped in from LA for the celebrations.

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Hearst spent more time at the ranch than any of his other houses. He was in love with the landscape and the view (to the extent that all of the cables for the hydroelectric generators where run underground so as not to disturb the hillside). I couldn’t help but think however that it would be a very isolated place, and somewhere that would get very boring very quickly, particularly for Marion, with all of her Hollywood friends heading back to LA when the party was over, both literally and figuratively. Not to get too poetic about stuff but I imagined that the collection of exotic and beautiful animals, including polar bears and zebras that were housed on the estate would have conveyed some extra resonance to Hearst’s best gal. Every movement would have had to be orchestrated, even a visit to the seashore, despite it being the focal point of the estate, would have taken twenty minutes to reach by car. You couldn’t go anywhere without everyone knowing about it. Standing in the dipping sun, between the great expanse of the Pacific and the colossal structure behind me, the words ‘gilded cage’ echoed in my head.