Hearst Ranch

Last night I attended an amazing lecture on the “Hearst Ranch: Family, Land and Legacy” at the Richard Driehaus Museum given by Victoria Kastner, Hearst Castle’s historian. She gave a detailed history of the Hearst family, the father George and his son William Randolph Hearst, the giant parcel of land that would become the ranch, and the building of this magnificent complex. One thing I learned is that while it’s called the Hearst Castle, he preferred calling it the Ranch. I’ll mention some other of the highlights.

I learned a great deal about the Hearst family. George Hearst went to California as part of the Gold Rush but he didn’t find gold. Instead, he found the largest vein of silver in the US, possibly the Northern hemisphere. So that’s where the money came from. He married a woman half his age, Phoebe, would become a great cultured and philanthropic lady. In her tiny town in Missouri, her great aspiration as a child was to go to St. Louis; her girlfriends thought she was mad. Well, she ended up doing a lot more than that. Anyway, Phoebe had William Randolph Hearst, who would be later known for his newspaper empire. George Hearst bought 40,000 acres of ranchland in 1865 and built a home (now still used by the Hearst family). William Hearst had fond memories of camping with his father out there. He adored it.

Later when W. R. Hearst inherited the Hearst fortune in 1919 (then 250,000 acres), he started thinking of building his dream home on the highest part of the land. The land is next to the ocean and near the mountains. It’s the ideal spot. He hired a female architect Julia Morgan, a brilliant woman who had studied in France in a program where she was the only woman. Hearst and Morgan collaborated in building “La Cuesta Encantada” or “Enchanted Hill.” From photos, the mist often surrounds the main building so it really does look enchanted. However, it was a challenge to build it since there were no roads leading to the main building area. Julia Morgan was said to have written, “Now I look at the remote castles of Europe with sympathy” since she had to have materials delivered, roads built, etc. to make it happen.

But it was more than a single large building. There were several “smaller” cottages at various levels, by the ocean, in the mountains, etc. According to the website of the Hearst Castle, by 1947 there were “165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools, and walkways.” It’s also got lots of land for cattle and they are committed to using it for cattle grazing indefinitely. There are at least two pools that are incredible. The inside pool is done up like a Roman bath with Venetian glass and gold mosaics. The outdoor one looks like it hails from Roman times with wonderful Roman columns and statues. And Hearst collected animals. So now there are zebras and a type of African goat that just wander the land. The zebras like to hang out with the buffalo! It’s truly a remarkable place.

Hearst loved the place. He sometimes filmed movies at the estate where he would play leading roles. There is a great photo where he is dressed as the cowboy, the hero, who saves the day. There is another photo of his wife Millicent tied to a tree, playing the damsel in distress. They had costume parties (of course) and private film screenings in their movie theatre.

Hearst showcased his extensive art collection, often buying pieces that had to be worked into the house. He leaned towards the decorative arts, like ceramics and sculptures, rather than paintings. Then he would have Julia Morgan figure out ways to integrate it into the building. For instance, he bought a ceiling from Europe (possibly a medieval one) that was intricately painted with little figures. She had to figure out how to install it into the room he selected. The art collection is everywhere in the house and the gardens. There are also warehouses of it too. There was a library with beautiful ancient Greek vases displayed on top of the bookshelves. Apparently, Harpo Marx and Marion Davies, an actress and the lover/mistress of Hearst, liked to tumble in it because it was so long.

There were several ancient oak trees on the estate. When they had to redo a fountain because the oak tree spilled leaves into it, he ordered the magnificent tree packed up and moved. He refused to cut down the native trees. Apparently, when there was a fire that destroyed an oak, Hearst said, “Would that it had been a building instead.” The building was something he could create a few years while these oaks took hundreds of years to grow.

Hearst loved to have movie stars, journalists, and politicians over to the Ranch. People would come for a long weekend. For instance, Cary Grant spent several nights there but his favorite time was when he was the only guest. The three of them spent the night singing British drinking songs in a magnificent wooden hall with banners overhead (it looks a bit like a choir in a church). Also, Charlie Chaplin liked to give tours of the estate in gibberish. David Niven, though, once commented that the “Alcohol flowed like glue.” It was during Prohibition and Hearst didn’t drink. So there were certain limits.

Anyway, that’s a taste of the Hearst Castle/Hearst Ranch. I’m going to have to go visit it and give a full report when I do. I would definitely check out the pictures on the website.

That’s all for now.

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