15 May 2008
San Francisco, CA—
Among thousands of acres of land, a private airstrip, several species of exotic wildlife, and many millions of dollars worth of imported works of art, today belonged to Hearst Castle. I’m speaking, of course, of the incredible and excessive home that newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst built for himself over the course of more than twenty years in the early-mid twentieth century. As far as I know, it is the closest thing this country has to the level of monarchial extravagance on display in castles across Europe, and I’ve been looking forward to visiting ever since I first saw the place fictionalized in Citizen Kane.
The main castle (Casa Grande) and the three large guest houses that surround it are designed around and filled with an amalgam of mostly classical European styles of architecture, painting, sculpture, furniture, and textiles. Julia Morgan, the architect responsible for realizing Hearst’s vision, had an incredibly fickle client, who often requested big changes mid- or post-construction.
The National Geographic film that accompanied the tour may as well have been a canonization. It paints Hearst as an eccentric, joyful man who dreamt of sharing his love of animals, the arts, and his family’s beautiful land with others. It conspicuously overlooks the fact that Hearst shared his home almost exclusively with people of tremendous wealth, power, and fame. The notion that this structure, like the European castles that inspired it, is a towering monument to unchecked vanity is likewise ignored.
Regardless of how or why Hearst Castle was accomplished, the accomplishment is worthy of respect, and it must be seen to be believed. Just do your best not to see it with a massive group of aging Japanese tourists who can’t get their heads around the fairly simple concepts of “Do Not Touch” and “No Flash Photography.” I wouldn’t know, but I expect you’ll enjoy it more that way.