SAN SIMEON, CALIF. -- It doesn't take long, wandering behind the scenes among the 38 bedrooms and 41 bathrooms (not counting those in the guest quarters next door), to sense a few differences between your house and Hearst Castle.
The museum accreditation, for instance. The paid staff of 234, not counting the food, gift shop, bus and movie concessions. The conservator in the billiard room delicately applying a brush to an ornate pine ceiling that dates to 15th-century Spain.
"Hearst acquired it, I think, in 1930 or '31," says Gary Hulbert, the conservator, peering down from his perch on a metal scaffold. "And it was installed in 1932."
Yet this storied 127-acre mansion property is becoming less an anomaly every day.
For the evidence, look at Las Vegas, the new North American capital of promiscuously juxtaposed European architectural fantasies. Look at the houses that belong to today's top executives: Bill Gates of Microsoft with his 66,000-square-foot lakefront compound in Medina, Wash.; Larry Ellison of Oracle with his 23-acre Japanese estate near San Francisco; the 123-room French chateau in Los Angeles commissioned by producer Aaron Spelling, who died in 2006.
California has plenty of castles these days.
So maybe it's not surprising that the annual visitor count at Hearst Castle has fallen from more than 1 million in the late 1980s to fewer than 670,000 in 2006-2007. We have plenty of crazy buildings these days, and some of them have even more powerful families behind them.
But are we here, inside California's original over-the-top castle, to grumble that the goblet is half-empty? We are not.
Hearst Castle, donated to the state of California by the Hearst Corp. on Dec. 31, 1957, and opened to public tours six months later, remains the fanciest open house you'll find between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It's a living (and occasionally leaking) testament to what results when a well-traveled, art-intoxicated, house-proud rich guy ignores all common sense, keeps a patient and pliable architect busy through 28 years of design, construction, addition and revision, then leaves it all in the hands of a government agency.
It's a big job just to keep the art safe and the doors open, and that's the drama we're here to spy on.
Just after 6 most mornings, museum custodian Letty Lachance is among a team of six to 10 people who creep up the hill in a van and unlock a basement-level door, make their way through the pantry and kitchen, open the main doors, throw about 100 light switches and get to sweeping, mopping, dusting, vacuuming, waxing and adjusting the rubber mats that tourists will step onto starting at about 8:20.
Gingerly, they work around the tapestries and silver, the ancient Greek amphorae, the 17th-century Persian tiles, the 15th-century Spanish chest, the 14th-century Italian paintings. Outside, four gardeners armed with backpack blowers blast and rake leaves from tour paths, then gather up the night's fallen fruit. Three times a week, they deadhead the roses and other flowers.
Meanwhile, restoration supervisor Bruce Jackson prowls the southern terrace, his gaze traveling back and forth between the tile work underfoot and the teakwood gables being refinished by workers on scaffolding four stories up.
In a minute, he'll swing by a set of greenhouses, reconstructed after 60 years of decay, that are almost ready for plants again.
"It's just like having your own house," says curator Frank Young, "but 1,000 times bigger."
It cost $9.75 million in 2006 to operate the castle, which is open for tours 362 days of the year and available for weddings and bar mitzvahs if you don't mind a bill of four or five figures. Between ticket sales ($20 to $30 per adult), concession income and those events, the castle brought gross revenues of $11 million to the state park system.
Although the castle is public property, it remains a personalized place. "It's not like going through a museum where they've got plastic boxes over everything," says curator Mary Levkoff, who has been organizing a Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition of works collected by Hearst. Moreover, she says, "Every time I go there, I see something I didn't notice before."
She compares it to the castles built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, whose architectural ambitions encouraged composer Richard Wagner in the 19th-century and inspired Walt Disney in the 20th. (Ludwig's Neuschwanstein was the model for Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle.)
As for America's other mansions, none can match the role played by Hearst's in the first half of the 20th century. This is partly because there's no Orson Welles around to make another Citizen Kane. And it might be impossible to match a houseguest roster that starts with actor Charlie Chaplin dining on venison, author P.G. Wodehouse cracking wise about the yaks in the private zoo, comic Harpo Marx turning somersaults in the library and actors David Niven and Cary Grant bemoaning the shortage of booze.
The property, built by Hearst ("The Chief") and architect Julia Morgan between 1919 and 1947, includes four houses: the 115-room, 60,645-square-foot Casa Grande, which has 30 fireplaces to go with all those bedrooms and bathrooms; and three sizable guest residences.
Together, they give the effect of a little hill town huddled around a twin-towered cathedral.
Then there are the castle's water features: the outdoor Neptune Pool and the indoor Roman Pool, which lies, in all its blue-
tiled splendor, under the tennis courts. And there was the zoo. Although it was mostly dismantled before Hearst's death in 1951, zebras, goats and deer still wander the Hearst-owned ranchland next to the castle. Sometimes, on your way up the winding path to the hilltop, you can glimpse them through the mist.
But you probably won't glimpse too many staffers. By 10:30 a.m., when things are just heating up at the National Geographic Theater (opened in 1996) and the visitor center (which got a $5 million remodel in 2006), most castle employees are halfway through the workday. When the tourists are on the march, they like to disappear.
The cleaning team keeps supplies in one of Hearst's old safes -- the liquor vault where the Chief, mindful of his mistress Marion Davies' alcoholism, kept most of his spirits under lock and key.
On the first of every month, employees turn over the rubber mats that tour groups tread upon and pull out poles to do the high dusting, a tall order in a house whose ground floor has 24-foot ceilings.
Hearst, who lived from 1863 to 1951, made his name by converting his family's mining fortune into a newspaper and magazine empire. He developed many of his tastes in the course of European travels at a tender age. In designing the castle, he and Morgan were influenced most by Spain.
Beneath all the castle complex's finery, says restoration supervisor Bruce Jackson, its walls are made of steel-reinforced concrete and its utilities are underground -- innovative choices in the 1920s and ones that withstood a stiff test four years ago, when the San Simeon earthquake registered 6.5 on the Richter scale.
"I had no idea what I was going to see that day," recalls Hoyt Fields, director of the Hearst Castle Museum.
His staff found 12 damaged artifacts but "not one bit of structural damage done. Julia Morgan knew what she was doing." The castle reopened after a day of stock-taking.
Still, wind, water and time will have their way, and there's plenty of work for Jackson's staff of 21 permanent and temporary restoration and maintenance workers. In one workshop behind the Casa Grande, Jackson and his staffers use urethane molds, cement and sand in six consistencies to copy and replace exterior features as they erode. In a second workshop, restoration specialist David Wilson bakes clay tiles in a kiln to match originals made in the 1920s.
"I was paying $2 apiece for these things. And the color wasn't right," says Jackson, holding a blue bar tile 6 inches long. Now, instead of buying from a vendor, Jackson has Wilson making them, and the two agree that the color is better -- a good thing, because the terraces outside the Case Grande alone contain more than 40,000 of those tiles.
Painting conservator Gary Hulbert, a contractor who typically works one week a month, is but one in a team of specialists whose have tidied up hundreds of figures painted on the beams, corbels and coffer panels.
"This project has been, what, 3 1 / 2 years?" he says after the tourists have moved along. But there are 1,019 little paintings on this ceiling, all dating to the 1480s, all survivors of five centuries of smokers' exhalations and fireplace fumes.
Maybe your house doesn't need this kind of work. But every homeowner who has ever hired a contractor has heard an answer like the one Hulbert gives when asked his completion date:
"It's going to be awhile," he says.
Christopher Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.
IF YOU GO
The Hearst Castle is on Highway 1 in San Simeon, Calif., a five-hour drive from either Los Angeles or San Francisco. It is a four-hour drive from San Jose.
The only way to see the castle is to join a tour, which lasts about two hours. All tours begin at the visitor center, where visitors board a bus that climbs the hill. Of the five tours (each focuses on a different part of the castle and its gardens), four are day tours with start times from 8:20 a.m. to 3:20 p.m., later in summer. Evening tour times depend on sunset. Depending on the season, prices are $20 to $30 for adults, $10 to $15 for children ages 6 to 17. Children younger than 6 are admitted free with an adult. Reservations are recommended. Call 800-444-4445 or go to hearstcastle.com.
Best Western Cavalier Oceanfront Resort:
9415 Hearst Drive, San Simeon; 805-927-4688 or cavalierresort.com. The hotel features a restaurant, two outdoor pools, 900 feet of ocean frontage, lots of grass for kids to run around on, three outdoor fireplaces that staffers stoke in the evening and 90 rooms. Doubles from $99.
San Simeon Pines Seaside Resort:
7200 Moonstone Beach Drive, Cambria; 866-927-4648, sspines.com. This old-fashioned roadside lodging (circa 1960) is at the northern end of Cambria's hotel row and has a wacky nine-hole golf course. About 25 of the 58 rooms are adults-only. Doubles from $100.
Cambria Pines Lodge:
2905 Burton Drive, Cambria; 800-966-6490 or 805-927-4200, cambriapineslodge.com. You see more pine cones than beach sand at this slightly inland 25-acre property set into a Cambria hillside. It has more than 200 rooms, including cabins dating to the 1940s and about 30 "superior suites" that were completed less than two years ago. Doubles from $69.
San Simeon Chamber of Commerce:
Cambria Chamber of Commerce:
San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau:
[LOS ANGELES TIMES]