I first became interested in the life and home of William Randolph Hearst after seeing the film “Citizen Kane,” very loosely based on his life. One of the best films ever made, in many opinions, and it led me to reading about the real man and his massive home in California, where the elite of Hollywood gathered to party in the 1920s-40s. About 15 years ago I actually drove past the place on a birdwatching trip, but the group had other agendas, so we didn’t stop. This trip I determined Ellen and I would visit the Hearst estate, and we spent a sunny afternoon there last week. We signed up for two tours: the Grand Rooms, and the Upstairs Suites ones. The estate is now owned and operated by the state of California (though much of the massive estate is a working ranch not owned by them). It’s run well, and we enjoyed our tours and time on the grounds very much. Incidentally, Hearst himself never called it a castle, though the main building is the size of one. To him it was “the ranch.”
After parking at the visitor center and buying our tour tickets, we were shuttle bussed up the three-mile drive to the hilltop estate. Seen from the highway on the coast, it doesn’t seem that high, but when you’re up there the views are spectacular. Our tour began outside the front entrance of Casa Grande, the Big House, with its two giant bell towers. Hearst and his architect Julia Morgan began working at the site (the family’s previous summer camping spot) in 1919, first building one the the three guest houses for Hearst to live in while work on the Casa Grande proceeded. Morgan and Hearst worked together to integrate his collection of European art, largely from the Medieval and Renaissance periods, including quite large pieces like massive carved ceilings, tapestries and fireplaces, into the design.
Behind that giant door is the Assembly Room, where guest would gather each evening at cocktail hour to swap stories of their daily activities. Hearst did not believe in letting guests sit around, and there were plenty of things for them to do, including horseback riding, swimming and tennis.
Part of the ceiling in the entrance foyer leading to the Assembly Room. As in “Citizen Kane,” the scale of the large rooms in this house is anything but cozy.
Another view of the Assembly Room. Hearst and his mistress, actress Marion Davies, would usually greet guests here and invite them to dinner…
…in the Refectory, another very large room.
Part of the ceiling in The Refectory. Unlike in “Citizen Kane,” Hearst did not travel around Europe looting the place for his collection, but bought most of it through antique dealers. He generally sent employees to make purchases, because when anyone saw Hearst come through the door, their prices would skyrocket. Despite his fortune, inherited from his father, a successful miner, and his newspaper empire, Hearst was a big spender, and always in debt. When things weren’t going so well in later years, some parts of his collection were sold off.
Here’s a large and impressive painting that survived. Indeed, much of the house is well filled with rare art and architecture, though some parts of the outside are not finished. Hearst and Morgan worked on the estate from 1919 to 1947, when Hearst had to leave for health reasons, but some things were rebuilt several times as Hearst changed his mind about them.
A small example of the many beautiful carved wood panels.
Here’s the Billiard Room, still quite large, but a bit more human in scale, and beautifully decorated.
This was my favorite tapestry in the building. The other room in this tour was the movie theater, which is charming (and where we saw some of Hearst’s home movies), but too dark for a good picture.
Back outside I liked this view of the Casa Grande from the tour starting point, as we waited for our second tour to begin.
Our second tour took us first to the second floor to see some of the 38 bedrooms. This is part of the Doge’s Suite. Loved this door, and a matching one is in the next bedroom.
Another room in the Doge’s Suite. This was for Hearst’s special guests, including several presidents and all the top movie stars.
Part of the ceiling in the bedroom above.
The Library, always a highlight for me in any large house. Hearst had a fine one, and was an avid reader.
After several other bedrooms, the tour took us up to the third floor, the Gothic Suite, which was Hearst’s private retreat, and one many guests never saw. I was fascinated, if a little horrified, to see many of the lamps shaded with handlettered Gothic parchment documents.
This is Hearst’s office, and what a magnificent one it is! Another library lines the walls, and the ceiling is not an antique, but designed by Morgan and painted by a contemporary artist in a charming faux medieval style. Hearst ran his empire from here by telephone, and often had his editors up for meetings as well.
A portrait of the Hearst as a young man.
Looking out one of the open balconies, a portion of the ornately carved wooden roof.
After our tours we were invited to spend as much time as we liked in the gardens and grounds. Here’s a view of the ocean.
The gardens are well-maintained, and lots of things were blooming, attracting this swallowtail butterfly.
The three guest houses might seem small compared to Casa Grande, but each is mansion-sized with numerous rooms, though none are open for tours.
I loved the door on this one. Look for all the facial profiles in the brasswork.
While not quite as ornate as the Big House, they’re full of interesting details.
The grounds have lots of marble staircases and statuary, and the feel is very Mediterranean.
Perhaps the best-known feature of the grounds is the massive Neptune Pool, which looked like a wonderful place to swim and relax. Indeed, we did sit out there for a while.
Under the tennis courts is another, equally impressive Roman Pool for indoor swimming.
Tired but happy, we eventually reboarded the shuttle bus, which stopped on the road down for this more distant view of the hilltop estate. A marvelous place to visit, which I’d recommend to anyone.