The California Castle on a Hill

En route to San Francisco, Katelyn and I spent an afternoon touring Hearst Castle, which is just outside of Cambria, California. Hearst Castle was built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst during the early twentieth century. It is a mansion sitting on top of a mountain near the California coast, in the same spot that Hearst camped with his family during his childhood. Hearst’s father was a cattle rancher, and bought the land with the fortune he made when he went west in the mid-1800s. The land surrounding Hearst Castle is still used by the Hearst family cattle ranching business today. In fact, the gift shop for the castle sells jerky and other meat related products from the Hearst family cattle ranch.

Unsurprisingly, Hearst frequently entertained celebrities at his castle. Charlie Chaplin was a frequent guest, as was Cary Grant. Cary Grant made a point of sleeping in a different bedroom every time he stayed at the castle. There are 38 bedrooms in the main house, plus 20 more in the guesthouses. In total, there are more than 165 rooms in the castle.

William Randolph Hearst built his castle over a period of twenty-eight years with the architect Julia Morgan. Julia Morgan was one of the first female architects in California, and she worked on many other projects throughout her career, but Hearst Castle was her longest. Hearst continuously altered his vision for the place. Our tour guide said, “he suffered from changeability of mind.” Even at the time of Hearst’s death, the castle was unfinished. To this day, the rear section of the castle remains undecorated, plain concrete. Upon the occasion of Hearst’s death, his family donated the castle to the state of California for use as a museum. This was Hearst’s original intention for the project. He wanted it to be a place where people could experience a sampling of Europe without needing to leave the United States.

Hearst built the castle with pieces of art and architecture that he purchased from auction houses. Many of these pieces had been taken from ancient cathedrals or monuments that sold parts of the historic, beautiful structures to make money when faced with bankruptcy. Hearst and other collectors of the time were strong supporters of this capitalistic looting. Today of course, there are laws to protect against the deconstruction of historic places and monuments. 

Hearst Castle contains mosaics from Ancient Greece, tapestries from the Renaissance, stone archways from gothic European churches, and much more. Additionally, when Hearst could not obtain a particular item that he wanted, he commissioned local craftsmen to create imitations tailored to his desires. Hearst Castle is a melange of two thousand years of art history (the oldest statue on the grounds is between two and three thousand years old from Egypt), orchestrated so that it all blends together seamlessly. From the rose garden, to the movie theater, to the indoor pool, the castle on the hill is an architectural playground. 

There is an outdoor swimming pool called the Neptune Pool, surrounded by Grecian columns. Unfortunately, the Neptune Pool is undergoing restoration, so we did not witness its full elegance. The indoor pool, however, left us awestruck. While the construction of the Neptune Pool drew from Greek inspiration, the indoor pool was influenced by that of the Romans (and is justifiably called the Roman Pool). The entire pool is covered in deep indigo and gold tile. There are arched walkways between sections of the pool, and one to swim through. There is a diving board, a platform above the pool (the purpose of which I still don’t know), and the most beautiful pool ladders I’ve ever seen. The whole thing evokes the feeling of being in an undersea cave, perhaps the last surviving section of Atlantis.

The Roman Pool concludes the tour of Hearst Castle, and understandably so. Even with the radiance of the rest of the castle, the bejeweled opulence of the Roman Pool is a tough act to follow. Luckily, Alex Trebek is up for the job. The long-loved and trusted Jeopardy! host narrates the shuttle rides to and from the castle, providing an oral preface and afterword to the tour. The disembodied voice of Alex Trebek supplies a historical snapshot of the castle’s past, wich makes for a pleasing distraction from the ride up and down the mountain, which can be nerve-wracking at times with old, dusty roads and the threat of deer, cattle, or zebras (descendants of the animals that were part of Hearst’s original menagerie) springing in front of the vehicle.

In every way, Hearst Castle surpassed my expectations. From the moment that Alex Trebek said, “Get ready for your enchantment to begin!” to spotting Hearst family ranch beef jerky in the gift shop and all the exquisite European architecture in between, Hearst Castle blew me away. It was an amazing experience, and there will always be more to explore. We could only go on one tour, but there are many others offered- of the kitchens, guesthouses, and more. It is an overwhelming place. The castle is fabulous, elegant, and fantastical. Visiting Hearst Castle is as if viewing all of western history occurring  at once on the same mountaintop.

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The main room on the ground floor of the big house, where Hearst would entertain guests before dinner.

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The dining room.

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The rose garden

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Part of the patio, with a view of the Pacific Ocean.

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The Roman Pool

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The Roman Pool

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The “Lone Cypress,” which is the symbol of the Pebble Beach community and golf course, on the “17-Mile Drive” in Monterey.

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4 thoughts on “The California Castle on a Hill

  1. Thank you for the riveting account of my favorite type of architecture – a European castle – and on US soil! Once again I felt like I was there in person with you, but experiencing it in an even more meaningful way, thanks to your eloquent and inspiring descriptions. Thank you also for the pictures of that breathtaking Roman pool!

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