What’s So Special About This California Icon?

by Shelli Stein

Friends visiting California asked me for a suggestion of where to go. They’ve been to the Golden State many times before, so they were looking for some sites that were off the beaten path. I recalled where they have been before and then came up with the perfect spot to add to their California adventures: Hearst Castle. Why Hearst Castle? Continue reading and you’ll see why Hearst Castle is the perfect destination for exploring history and architecture. It is, after all, one of the most elaborate and awe inspiring homes in the United States!

The phenomenal Hearst Castle is a California treasure. The story of the castle and its eccentric owner, William Randolph Hearst, is the stuff movies are made of. And indeed, it was the subject of Orson Welles classic 1941 film Citizen Kane.

The Hearst estate became a California state park in 1954. It is a destination particularly famous and noted for the art and architecture of Hearst Castle.

Before we discuss the particulars of the castle (which contains 115 rooms including 38 bedrooms, 40 bathrooms, a beauty salon, and a theatre), let’s take a trip back in time and learn about the Hearst family and how this story began. Let’s dig in and explore the background on George Hearst, his son William, and the development of the Hearst Castle.

Hearst Castle overview

Hearst Castle overview

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History of the Hearst Family: It All Began With George

The Hearst patriarch, George, lived his life with vision and gusto.

George Hearst, born in 1820, was a businessman from an early age. He took over the family farm (in home state Missouri) when his father died, ran a successful store, and became involved in the mining of lead, an abundant resource in Missouri.

Hearst Sr. was so successful in the mining industry that he decided to seek his fortune in gold mining in California. The family moved to California in 1850, and George continued to build the Hearst fortune.

At Merrimac Hill (near Grass Valley), Hearst Sr. applied what he learned about lead mining to extracting gold. He also expanded interests to silver mining in Nevada. He invested in gold and land throughout the western U.S. and even Mexico.

You might say that everything Hearst Sr. touched turned to gold!

George Hearst’s Family Life

He married his wife, Phoebe, in 1862, and they had one son, William, who was born in 1863.

Hearst Sr. was a rough guy. He was nearly illiterate and enjoyed those working man’s leisure activities of playing poker, chewing tobacco, and drinking whisky. His disheveled appearance and crude manners hid the fact that he was on his way to becoming one of America’s first millionaires.

His business savvy and wealth built a strong reputation for him. In 1865, Hearst Sr. was elected as a Democrat to the California State Assembly.

He traveled throughout California and the west, expanding his business knowledge and his network. He knew a bargain when he saw it, and he bought up land around California, including 48,000 acres at San Simeon.

In 1880, George Hearst acquired a different type of business. As repayment for a gambling debt, he became the owner of the San Francisco Examiner. He wasn’t very interested in publishing, but he thought owning a paper would be advantageous to the Democratic Party (he was right).

Later in life he returned to politics. Hearst Sr. became a California senator in 1886, and he served in Washington D.C. for the final six years of his life. He died in 1891.

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Who Was William Randolph Hearst?

William Randolph Hearst has been compared to the Mark Zuckerberg of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was the subject of much controversy throughout his life.

Unlike his father, young Hearst had the privilege of attending a private prep school and having a college education. Although he attended Harvard for a few years, he was apparently expelled for mischievous behavior, such as excessive partying and sending chamber pots to his professors (embossed with their names).

William Randolph Hearst And Journalism

He found his calling in journalism after taking over the struggling San Francisco Examiner, a gift from his father in 1887. He turned the paper around using “a blend of reformist investigative reporting and lurid sensationalism” (William Randolph Hearst, 2023).

In other words, he helped invent what we call “yellow journalism” which attracted readers with human interest stories that pulled at the reader’s heart strings, full of emotion and exaggeration.

Once he devised the formula for selling newspapers galore (he was the father of what we know today as “click bait”), he bought the New York Journal in New York City in 1895. A furious competition for readers ensued between the Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

This competition reflects a certain flair for drama in the Hearst world.

Through exaggerated reporting, Hearst’s papers helped create the Spanish-American War in 1898. The paper’s support of political candidates like William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley also showed the impact of the press (and the man behind it).

Hearst, like his father, also played a role as an elected politician in the early 1900s (he also had an unsuccessful bid for president and mayor of New York).

In 1903, when he was 40, Hearst married Millicent Wilson (a 21-year-old chorus girl). They had five sons. It wasn’t a happy marriage, though. Hearst became involved with actress Marion Davies, with whom he lived for more than 30 years. While Millicent remained legally married to Hearst, she led her own life in New York, where she was known as a leading philanthropist.

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Hearst’s Life During His Final Years

With decades of high living, by the 1930s and the Great Depression, Hearst had acquired huge debt. He sold much of the Hearst Corporation. During World War II, the castle was closed (after Pearl Harbor there was a perceived possible enemy attack on the Castle). By 1947, Hearst and Davies left the castle for good, moving to a house in Beverly Hills.

Hearst died in 1951. He had spent 32 years with Marion Davies, but she was not invited to his funeral by the family.

Three years after his death, La Cuesta Encantada became a California state park. In 1958 the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument was established, and that year the estate was opened to public tours. It became one of the state’s more popular attractions, and more than 1 million people visit annually.

Hearst Castle pool with trees

Hearst Castle magnificent pool area

Hearst Castle Roots

The property traces its history all the way back to 1865, when George (who knew a good thing when he saw it) bought 40,000 acres in San Simeon. Hearst Sr. took his family camping on the lush land, hence the name “Camp Hill” and why it became the site for the Hearst Castle.

William remembered:

“My father brought me to San Simeon as a boy. I had to come up the slope hanging on to the tail of a pony. We lived in a cabin on this spot and I could see forever. That’s the West – forever”.

The family built a ranch house on the land in the 1870s, which produced cattle, featured fruit orchards, and they even bred racehorses.

It’s interesting to note that while Hearst Sr. developed the ranch, William and his mother traveled abroad in 1873. Hearst Jr. was greatly influenced by European culture and history. This is where he developed his love and obsession with collecting artwork.

In 1919, William inherited the family estate and $11 million. This funding enabled Hearst to create the dream home he saw in his wildest imagination. He wanted to create the extravagant design and architecture he loved experiencing in his travels abroad.

Hearst’s Famous Art Collection

He also saw the estate as a place to display his art collection. William had been a passionate collector throughout his life. His collection included American and European Old Master paintings and sculptures, tapestries, oriental rugs, Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, silver, furniture, and historic ceilings.

He displayed much of this collection at Hearst Castle and five other properties. He conceived of the castle in San Simeon as becoming “a museum of the best things that I can secure”.

Originally the estate was meant as a home for Hearst, his wife Millicent, and their five sons. But by 1925 with the demise of Hearst’s marriage, Hearst Castle became the home and social world of William and his mistress, actress Marion Davies.

Famous People Who Visited Hearst Castle

Many dignitaries and Hollywood stars enjoyed the splendor of Hearst Castle (known as La Cuesta Encantada). A partial list includes Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, and more.

Political visitors included Winston Churchill and Calvin Coolidge. Writers included Bernard Shaw and P.G. Wodehouse. Even Charles Lindbergh paid a visit to the opulent castle.

Guests were treated to an incredible array of food, drink, entertainment, and activities.

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Who Actually Designed Hearst Castle?

Enter the next impressive personality in the Hearst Castle saga: architect Julia Morgan.

This excerpt from Jackie Craven’s Thoughtco biography explains Morgan’s career and her long-term collaboration with her most famous client, William Randolph Hearst.

In brief:

Julia Morgan lived from 1872-1957. Though she is best known for the lavish Hearst Castle, Julia Morgan also designed public venues for the YWCA as well as hundreds of homes in California.

Morgan helped rebuild San Francisco after the earthquake and fires of 1906, except for the bell tower at Mills College, which she had already designed to survive the damage. And it still stands.

Her credentials:

  • 1890: Graduated from Oakland High School, California
  • 1894: Earned a degree in civil engineering from the University of California, Berkeley
  • While at Berkeley, mentored by architect Bernard Maybeck
  • Twice rejected by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris
  • Entered and won several important architecture competitions in Europe
  • 1896: Accepted by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and became the first woman to graduate from that school with a degree in architecture

Who Was Julia Morgan?

Julia Morgan was one of America’s most important and prolific architects.

Morgan was the first woman to study architecture at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the first woman to work as a professional architect in California. During her 45-year career, she designed more than 700 homes, churches, office buildings, hospitals, stores, and educational buildings.

Like her mentor, Bernard Maybeck, Julia Morgan was an eclectic architect who worked in a variety of styles. She was known for her painstaking craftsmanship and for designing interiors that incorporated the owners’ collections of art and antiques. Many of Julia Morgan’s buildings featured Arts and Crafts elements such as:

  • Exposed support beams
  • Horizontal lines that blend into the landscape
  • Extensive use of wooden shingles
  • Earth colorings
  • California redwood and other natural materials.

Julia Morgan’s Accomplishments

After the California earthquake and fires of 1906, Julia Morgan obtained commissions to rebuild Fairmont Hotel, St. John’s Presbyterian Church, and many other important buildings in and around San Francisco.

Of the hundreds of homes that Julia Morgan designed, she is perhaps most famous for Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California.

For nearly 28 years, craftsmen labored to create William Randolph Hearst’s magnificent estate. The estate has 165 rooms, 127 acres of gardens, beautiful terraces, indoor and outdoor pools, and an exclusive private zoo.

Hearst Castle is one of the largest and most elaborate homes in the United States.

When Morgan first met Hearst in 1919, she was mid-career at 47 years old. Hearst was 56 at the time. He owned a publishing empire comprising 28 newspapers, 13 magazines, 8 radio stations, 4 film studios, vast real estate holdings, and 31,000 employees.

Much has been written about Hearst’s collaboration with Morgan. The Julia Morgan Archive at the Robert E. Kennedy Library at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo contains more than 3,700 letters and telegrams.

Highlights of the Hearst Castle

Where to begin?

  • Two pools (originally three)
  • Vast wine cellar (got the family through Prohibition)
  • Private airport
  • Private zoo-the world’s largest—with a variety of species of antelope, zebra, camels, ostriches, and more

The centerpiece of the estate is the main residence, which became known as Hearst Castle. It was designed in the Mediterranean Revival style, and its facade suggests a Spanish cathedral with its bell towers and ornate decorations.

The main entrance is flanked by bas-reliefs of knights, and a sculpture of Mary holding the baby Jesus. The splendor of the exterior continues inside the mansion.

Typifying the mansion’s opulence is the Doge’s Suite, which was inspired by the Doges’ Palace in Venice and was reportedly reserved for Hearst’s most important guests. The sitting room features walls adorned with velvet fabric, and the 18th-century painted ceiling was originally in an Italian palazzo.

The suite’s marble balcony includes an elaborate loggia. In addition, Hearst’s extensive collection of antiques and artworks is prominently displayed in the suite as well as throughout the rest of the mansion.

Visitors can easily spend a day or more taking in the incredible Hearst Castle.

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Final Thoughts

If you’ve been to Hearst Castle, perhaps this article will inspire you to return. And if you have never been to San Simeon, clearly you now have a reason to go!

The Hearst legacy offers a snapshot of another time in American history. William Randolph Hearst was America’s first media tycoon. He was also the epitome of a self-made man who created the world he desired.

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