Hearst Castle – A Paean to Exuberant Wealth

Hearst CastleOne of the most influential men of the 20th century, publishing titan William Randolph Hearst was larger than life, so it’s fitting that his home is, too. In 1919, W.R. (as he was known to his friends) inherited 250,000 acres of ranchland along a striking and desolate section of the California coast and set about building “a little something.” That something turned out to be a 90,080-square-foot, 165-room Mediterranean Revival-style spectacle that remains unparalleled in its combination of opulence, grandeur, and excess. It is one of the last great examples of America’s Gilded Age, an over-the-top paean to a lifestyle long gone.

Designed by renowned architect Julia Morgan and built over the course of 28 years (although never officially completed) atop what Hearst would call “La Cuesta Encantada” (The Enchanted Hill), it’s characterized by 56 bedrooms, 41 fireplaces, exuberantly adorned swimming pools, and a dizzying collection of art and antiques obsessively amassed by Hearst during his lifetime. With his inexhaustible funds, Hearst would scour the auction houses of New York City, buying entire looms from a French medieval castle here, a 15th-century Renaissance villa there. In its heyday the estate included a zoo (wild descendants of the zebras still roam the grounds) and private airstrip, and was the getaway playground for Hollywood legends such as Marion Davies (his mistress for over three decades), (lharlie Chaplin, Bette Davis, and Cary Grant. The fantasy estate—and Hearst himself—was the inspiration behind Xanadu, the pleasure palace of the haunted hero in Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece.

Today the lavish memorial to one man’s wealth is now officially known as Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument (Hearst himself would refer to it as “the ranch”). A variety of tours offer the chance to walk in the footsteps of revelers past. Tour 1 is recommended for first-timers, who can view an introductory movie and see rooms on the ground floor of the opulent Casa Grande main house. Tour 5 allows visitors to stroll the grounds during the evening and illustrates what an overnight stay was like for the ever-changing roster of high-profile guests (Hearst was known for his strict rules of behavior— guest David Niven was often chastised for drinking in his room).

Hearst Castle covers the hillside above the tiny coastal town of San Simeon, but most visitors will prefer spending time in the relaxed, exceedingly charming artists community of Cambria, located 6 miles south. Though the center of town is only a few blocks long, diversity can be found by meandering the historic and country-elegant East Village and the newer, more touristy West Village. Drop by the Sow’s Ear restaurant for gourmet comfort food in a tiny cottage that is both warm and romantic. If you’re staying the night, revel in the small-town country-coastal vibe at the J. Patrick House, a charming two-story log cabin B&B complete with wood-burning fireplaces, fluffy duvet covers, and bedtime milk and cookies.