Tuesday, May 30, 2006

touring the castle that Hearst built

So I went sightseeing today.

I drove south on Highway 1 from the Bay Area and reached the small town of San Simeon to see the castle that newpaper magnate William Randolph Hearst built for himself.

Hearst Castle is truly one of the gems of California. Hearst commissioned architect Julia Morgan to design the entire residence, which sits atop the Santa Lucia hills. Considered as one of California’s most important architects, Morgan is doubly noteworthy for being a woman which was then (as it still is relatively speaking) a man’s profession.

Planning of the Castle began in 1919. By 1948 bits of the castle compound were still under construction, which points to the immensity of the building project.

But the result of it, as I saw today, was just impressive.

Visitors have to gather at the visitor center; and we all had to be bussed 5 miles up the hill to reach the castle.

And what struck me about the style and architecture of the castle was its blatant use of Catholic iconography, which is ironic as Hearst was never known to be devoutly Catholic. “These Catholic symbols in his castle are not necessarily a testament to his faith,” the tour guide exclaimed.

Rather, it was the “style” during the 20’s and 30’s for some of these mega millionaires to adorn their grand houses using religious art.

But on second thought, that this castle looked more like a cathedral than a millionaire’s mansion, sits well for California, the early history of which was shaped by the Catholic Franciscan missionaries, most notably Junipero Serra.

And so Hearst adorned his castle with Catholic images, statues of saints, choir stalls; even a roof from an Italian monastery was shipped in and was installed in the sumptuous dining hall.

The pool however was constructed with Roman style sculptures, complete with mermaids and mermen. Filigrees and columns dating back from ancient Rome were transported to help build the temple to Neptune. And from this pool, the view of the Pacific horizon was breathtaking.

Rather than one period dominating the decor of the place, Hearst took elements from diffferent time periods and cultures to embellish his castle: Catholic medieval art, ancient Roman busts and columns, Arabic script and tiles, California colonial art. It was a pastiche.

Going back to the pool, in addition to it, an indoor pool was built, with floor tiles of 24 carat gold.

Celebrities from the golden age of Hollywood were frequent guests in the castle---Cary Grant, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and others.

And statesmen such as Winston Churchill and Calvin Coolidge were also guests, as well as notables such as Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes.

I saw about 25% of the castle, and it was simply grand. It was like a make-believe world, high atop the hills, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday toils and travails.

To conclude the tour the guide said, “This ends our tour. I hope you enjoyed yourselves. Right there is the bus back to reality.”

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