Hearst Castle proves worthy of pilgrimage

50 years of public ownership hasn’t dimmed its ability to dazzle

Maria A. Gaura, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, October 21, 2007

(10-21) 04:00 PDT San Simeon, San Luis Obispo County — Fortunately, curiosity got the best of me.

If, like me, you’ve avoided Hearst Castle for years because you shudder at the thought of being mistaken for a tourist on your home turf, now might be a good time to get over that.

The famous Central Coast hilltop palace built for William Randolph Hearst has been in public hands for half a century now – 18 years longer than Hearst used the place – and while the estate hasn’t changed in 50 years, experiencing it has. The visitor center has just completed a $5 million makeover, while the coming year will see special events organized for the public site’s golden anniversary.

And after finally facing my fear of parading rental cars and milling around with known tourists, I recently discovered that while it’s no Monticello, Hearst Castle is gorgeous, it’s fun and it has a dash of Hollywood celebrity. It’s a 1930s version of “Cribs,” with a professional curatorial staff.

Hearst Castle was given to the state parks department in 1957, and public tours of the site began in 1958. It’s curious to realize how briefly newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (whose company, the Hearst Corp., now owns The San Francisco Chronicle) occupied the site. He began work on his San Simeon dream house in 1919, and kept hammering away for the next 28 years; building, ripping out and rebuilding everything from the main house to the famous Neptune swimming pool.

The place was a colossal money pit, and a visit here should reassure anyone struggling with a remodel that things could really be much, much worse. Construction finally petered out in 1947, Hearst died four years later, and his heirs, unwilling to shoulder the massive cost of maintenance, donated the place to the state in 1957.

The slice of history that Hearst Castle represents is vanishingly short, especially when compared to Hearst’s other castle, St. Donat’s, a 14th century fortress in Wales. But that slice is wonderfully presented by the park’s museum staff, and the tours are ticked off with military precision, making the experience feel less crowded than one might expect.

When the park first opened, a maximum of 600 visitors per day were driven to the hilltop compound in rattling orange school buses. Today, as many as 5,400 tourists per day are ferried up in natural-gas powered coaches, with a taped narrative pointing out sights along the way. We got a good look at the big-horned sheep that wander the property, descendants of animals formerly kept in Hearst’s private zoo. A number of zebra and elk have reportedly also gone native. (Fortunately, the polar bears were not so adaptable.)

Once out of the bus and on the hill, I finally understood why people flock to this place, and even spend the day taking one tour after another.

Credit William’s dad with choosing a site with the most agreeable climate on earth and buying 300 square miles of it. The setting is incomparable, and feels as though it is perched on top of the world. The Julia Morgan buildings feel very Californian, despite being smothered in Mediterranean detail.

And strolling through the bedrooms and peering into the closets is great fun. Every room is lavish, every window has a dreamy view and the decorating style is simple: profusion. Each chamber brims with stuff, real-deal, old, impressive stuff that you suspect was bought in bulk and shipped to California by the rail-car load. You’ve got your Roman sculptures, Persian carpets, Greek vases and Renaissance paintings – it’s like a jumble sale at the British Museum, and that’s just the guest cottage.

Room follows upon overstuffed room, and it becomes impossible to feel the power of individual works. Fifteenth century Flemish tapestry, took decades to weave? Nice. What else have you got?

The tour pace is brisk, and security is tight – for good reason. On Feb. 12, 1976 a bomb was detonated at the Castle’s Casa Del Sol, missing a tour group by seconds. The case was never solved, though the attack was thought to be related to the arrest of Hearst’s granddaughter, Patty.

Our tour guide, Bill, could field pretty much every question we threw at him, though there was no mention of dicey topics such as the Spanish American War or yellow journalism. There was plenty of detail on Hearst’s house rules (two-cocktail limit, no drunks, required attendance at evening movies) and his longtime affair with actress Marion Davies, who shared his suite at Hearst Castle and presided as hostess there. (Mrs. Hearst, meanwhile, lived in New York with the couple’s five sons.) One of Davies’ films, “Show People,” will be screened in Hearst’s private theater next April with live accompaniment by the San Luis Obispo Symphony, in a benefit for restoration work.

The tour, including the bus ride, is an hour and 45 minutes. Afterward, head back to the renovated visitor center for a quick espresso and, if you like, a 40-minute film about Hearst at the IMAX theater. You can also now shop for Hearst Ranch beef, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and reproduction of Hearst home furnishings.

But nothing has changed up at the Castle, as some of the repeat tourists happily pointed out. “It’s exactly the same as when I was here before,” said one.

Then she asked, to my gratification, “Do you live around here?”

Freelance writer Maria A. Gaura last wrote for Travel about the Isis Oasis in Geyserville. To comment on the story, go to sfgate.com/travel and follow the links.