Wednesday, January 1, 2014

State parks are fantastic too: Part II.B - California, La Cuesta Encantada

I've visited and enjoyed the massive, sprawling, overwhelmingly opulent and magnificent Hearst Castle,  also known as La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill) a couple of times over the past three or so decades, but I think I've finally gained sufficient life experience now to be awed by it in ways I could not be before -- it is, after all, an awful lot to take in. The Castle, for which ground was broken in 1919, is perhaps the greatest legacy of media baron William Randolph Hearst. It is now managed by the California State Parks, open for public viewing, and maintained to the highest museological standard.
Hearst (grandfather of the notorious kidnapping victim-cum-criminal-cum-model citizen, Patty Hearst)  was himself bigger than life, and his enterprises were fabulously lucrative, as woefully dys-imagined in the movie Citizen Kane. Not one to fritter away his fortune on profligacy (at least, not the usual kind), Hearst developed the family ranch overlooking the Pacific Ocean at San Simeon, California, into a mansion and estate beyond compare. Today it's a do-not-miss along California Highway 1.
The Castle was a 28-year collaboration between Hearst, with his money and acquisitive taste, and the brilliant architect Julia Morgan. Morgan, like Mary Jane Colter, was a standout in a field dominated by men, and like Colter, her considerable accomplishments beyond the the work for which she was best known during her lifetime (the Castle), was largely uncelebrated until recent years. Also like Colter, it seems she never had budget constraints. Nor limitations on the talent and skills she could recruit to import, build or restore, install, replicate, and maintain the exquisite treasures,  baubles, fancies, and architectural elements in their entireties, mostly of the Mediterranean world and from all eras, ancient to 1930's and 40's contemporary.
A turkey vulture gazes across the Hearst acreage to the "Castle" at the top of a 1,600 foot hill, San Simeon, California
We started the morning of our tour at our sea-level hotel, with the famous California fog so thick we could hear but not see waves sloshing on the beach across the street. We boarded a bus at the visitor center a few miles away and were driven up along the winding road until suddenly we popped through the fog and found ourselves looking down at a bright cloud deck of puffy white shining in the California sun, exactly as if we had ascended in a plane. 
We gathered at the foot of the facade of the La Casa Grande (the big house, main house) to admire its busy decoration and to take a look up into the bell towers.  Inside we found ourselves in the cavernous Assembly Room, too dark to photograph well, but designed to cushily accommodate large numbers of guests for cocktails prior to proceeding to dinner in the so-called Refectory.
At this "modest" dining table the Hearsts (William Randolph and his wife Millicent, and, after their separation, WR and actress Marion Davies, his companion for the rest of his life) hosted society's luminaries from politicians to Hollywood mainstays to businessmen and celebrities of all ilks.
It's hard to imagine that the Hearst dinner parties were ever described as "casual," but that's the way he wanted them.
Next up was the Billiard Room, lined with this huge 15th century French tapestry hunting scene  to suggest, I suppose, that the room is meant for the recreation of very well-dressed people. 
No object in the Hearst Castle, however old or new, is in less than exquisite condition.
The final interior room of our tour was the movie theater in which Hearst and guests, and, apparently also the staff, enjoyed movies produced at Cosmopolitan Productions, owned by none other than WR, of course. (Most of the movies were not memorable, but were certainly money-makers at the time.) I've not been able to establish seating capacity, but it was at least 50. In the cavernous room too dark for my photo purposes, this shot of  a "simple" life-sized wall sconce well represents the general idea.
Not to be outdone by the interior are the vast gardens with free-standing guest mansionettes, swimming pools, tennis courts, sculptures, fountains, and luxuriant flora. Here is Casa del Monte, guest house "B" (out of three) which is doubtless larger, prettier, and most certainly better attended and accoutred, than the average American middle class home:
Sculptures and fountains and embellishments abound:
In spite of its prominence in views up to the Casa Grande from the Neptune Pool (see below), I've been unable to identify this lovely Spanish-style fountain. Perhaps rather than being an original object of great value, it is a cheap imitation. One of the annoying shortcomings of the Castle-as-museum is the complete absence of labels or on-line access to catalogs of the holdings. I wouldn't be surprised if this is intentional, so as not to spoil the illusion that this was a real home, albeit inhabited by its owner part-time, and by people who do not seem particularly real.
Another unidentified but charming garden ornament.
Detail, ironwork screen on one of the guest houses created by Californian Edward Trinkkeller
No opportunity to add detail was passed up.
The iconic ultimate outdoor attraction at Hearst Castle is the 345,000 gallon Neptune Pool with its complex period architectural and decorative references and sky-mirroring color.
Hearst collected live exotica as well:
Some species, like the poor polar bears and elephant, lived mostly in the confines of a zoo. Others, like these Grey's zebras, progeny of the originals, were free to graze with the beef cattle on what is now the Hearst Corporation Ranch. 
By the time we had to go on our way the fog had cleared, revealing views all the way to the Pacific Ocean, providing a taste of what it was that Hearst so loved about this spot.
This report barely touches the surface of La Cuesta Encantada's epic. The researching and writing of it has brought home of how little I was able to absorb, even on this visit as a more worldly person than on previous encounters. It would be an enormous indulgence to go back again too soon, though. But indulgence is the name of this game, is it not?


  1. Intriguing indeed. I've never read a good biography of the man but what little I know of his methods somehow reminds me of Rupert Murdoch and his methods. To which I'm drawn to a bust in the British museum of Ramses a Shelly's poem Ozymandias. So much for the arrogance of such wealth and power....

  2. Hi TB - His business methods were certainly Murdochian, but Murdoch doesn't have Hearst's romantic imagination, that's for sure!
    Happy new year!