Hearst CastleFebruary 22, 2017 No Comments
Hearst Castle was once a vacation home belonging to newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. It sits high atop a hill in San Simeon, California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Its location is certainly beautiful, and was aptly named “La Cuesta Encantada,” The Enchanted Hill, for the views are simply enchanting. It was first opened to the public in 1958 after becoming a California State Park in 1954.
I had the opportunity to visit this site for the second time in my life some months back. The first time I went, I was a child of about eleven or twelve, so my impressions were quite different. What impressed me most during my childhood visit were the swimming pools. I have always been drawn to water, so gazing upon their sparkling depths, was like staring at a pastry locked behind a glass cabinet: I could look all I wished, but I could not touch, no matter how much I longed to do so. And for someone who loved to swim almost as much as a fish, this unfulfilled longing bordered on a kind of torture. Oh how I wanted to dive into those pools…
The Neptune Pool, empty during our recent visit while it undergoes restoration, is an outdoor pool with fountains, marble sculptures, marble pavilions, and an ancient temple façade. It offers gorgeous views of the coastline, the property, and the Pacific Ocean.
This indoor pool is an artistic masterpiece. It was inspired by the ancient Roman baths of Caracalla from the early third century AD. Copies of ancient Greek and Roman statues, mosaic glass tiles fused with gold, vaulted arches, and the domed ceiling are all exquisite. What attracted me most was that the water was actually heated during its heyday. Now that is luxury. I think I could spend hours in such a pool.
Hearst Castle features the main “castle” called Casa Grande, and three guest houses known as Casa del Mar, Casa del Monte, and Casa del Sol. Casa Grande is what attracts most visitors. The estate has 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms, over 100 acres of gardens, tennis courts, a movie theater, and indoor and outdoor swimming pools. At the time of Mr. Hearst’s ownership, it also included an airfield, and the world’s largest private zoo with a diverse collection of wild animals grazing freely over the hills. Included among the animals were camels, deer, ostriches, emus, antelope, zebras, llamas, kangaroos and sheep. Other animals like giraffes, tigers, bears, lions, leopards, chimpanzees, orangutans, monkeys, macaws, and an elephant were kept in menagerie cages. Today, zebras can still be seen roaming the hillside.
Casa Grande’s décor is an eclectic mix of architectural styles and elements that Mr. Hearst acquired during his extensive travels around the world. There are large European oil paintings, tapestries, rugs, furniture, decorative pieces of art, a rare-books collection, and even Egyptian artifacts dating back to more than two millennia.
A MELANCHOLIC ENCHANTMENT
While the design is handsome, and each component chosen with obvious care, the overall effect of the estate left me a little ambivalent. Perhaps that is why I waited some months to write about it after my most recent visit. Yes, Hearst Castle is beautiful, but it’s also forlorn. There is something hollow and gloomy about it. It is like a body without a soul. I would even go as far as to say that it reflects the man who had it built. He traveled far and wide, searching for priceless artifacts with which to fill the house, but the resulting effect was rather like an orphanage of uprooted valuable pieces all housed in permanent exile in one place. The built-in carved wood seats lining the dining room wall seem to pine for the old European monastery from whence they came. The elaborate stone fireplace sits cold and brooding over its genteel past. The centuries-old ceilings gaze not upon the graceful mansions and palaces from where they came, but upon an incongruous collection bordering on the ostentatious. It is almost gaudy in its proportions, as though the Master of the house went on a shopping spree and binged on a varied assortment of precious artifacts he was determined to find a place for in his new home; determined to fill a void that perhaps nothing tangible could fill. It left me with a feeling of melancholy. A subtle despondence that lingered even after leaving the estate.
Regardless, Hearst Castle is definitely worth a visit. It will be especially appreciated by those who enjoy things at face value which is, perhaps, the best way to approach this California Historical Landmark. But I could not help imagining the artifacts as they once were in their points of origin. I had a home in France, one relic would whisper in reminiscence. And I in Belgium, another would say. And I in an ancient Egyptian temple, a third would reply.
And so the castle goes on murmuring its secrets when no one is around. Its relics tell their many tales with all the wistful eloquence of a bygone time. But I’m sure I caught a word or two of their nostalgic undertones. If you listen carefully, you just might hear them too.
And that alone makes a visit worthwhile.