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Chasing a dream – Hearst’s “Castle in the Sky”

High on a hilltop in Central California stands Hearst Castle. Built to emulate a European villa, this impressive mansion is the crowning glory of one man’s creative fantasies. Located near San Simeon, it had for a long time been on my wish-list of places to visit. Early December, was the perfect time … after the Thanksgiving crowds and before the Christmas onslaught. In eager anticipation we arrived early at the Visitor Centre. The 40-minute film “Hearst Castle, Building the Dream” is well worth seeing before taking a guided tour.

Once little more than a horse trail, the five-mile driveway up to this unique residence is now paved. William Randolph Hearst’s parents brought him as a young boy on camping grips to the Santa Lucia mountains. And I can well understand why he fell in love with this particular location. Today, a 10-minute bus ride transports visitors up to the main house or “Casa Grande”. As the road winds gently upwards, we pass citrus trees, fruit orchards and the original kitchen gardens. Fruit, herbs vegetables from here once provided all the needs of the estate’s five chefs. Looking back, our gaze wanders over the grassy ranchlands of the 83,000 acre estate. Beyond, is a stunning view of the sparkling waters of the Pacific Ocean 300 feet or so below.

In his early years, the young Randolph Hearst spent several months travelling with his mother in continental Europe. These adventures marked the beginning of a lifelong dream. On later trips, he collected many examples of centuries-old artwork, sculptures, tapestries, tile work, lamps and other historical artifacts. So many, in fact, that some remain in storage. His ideas were strongly influenced by the European architects he so admired. In 1922, construction of his enchanted country house finally commenced. Over a period of 28 years, plans took root, solidified, evolved, changed and then changed yet again. In fact, his vision became a reality thanks in no small part to the dedication of his talented architect, Julia Morgan.

One can choose from a number of different tours: the Grand Rooms, the Upstairs Suites, the Cottages & Kitchen and the Evening Tour. As first-time visitors, we chose a tour of the Grand Rooms. This includes the Assembly Room, Refectory, Billiard Room and Movie Theatre as well as the extensive grounds. At Mr. Hearst’s weekend retreats, 20 or so guests, including such celebrities as Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable and Greta Garbo, used to gather in the spacious, high-ceilinged Assembly Room for cocktails prior to the dinner hour. An adjoining private elevator and hidden door enabled Mr. Hearst to join his guests unannounced. Overwhelmed as we were by the wood paneling, paintings and tapestries and the life-size marble and bronze sculptures with its comfy overstuffed chairs, it’s easy to imagine this as a place of informal get-togethers.

In the 1930s, dinner guests attired in tuxedos and elegant gowns would proceed from the Assembly Room to the Gothic-style Refectory. Along the walls are 600-year-old wooden choir stalls. From the carved wooden ceiling hang old flags from various parts of Italy and large rustic lamps. Central to the room is a long wooden refectory table adorned with Mexican silver candlesticks. Seated at the centre would be Mr. Hearst flanked by those guests with a good story to tell. Any number of small dachshund dogs would be running about while cowboy music played in the background. One can almost hear the animated conversations of these lively groups from long ago!

As an affable host, Mr. Hearst liked his house-party guests to be active and well-entertained. A game of billiards might be in order or perhaps an energetic tennis match followed by a dip in the pool. Or for those who wished for more subdued amusement, a quiet read in the library, stocked with over 4,000 books, a gentle horseback ride or a leisurely visit to the estate’s private zoo.

The exterior of the 70,000 square foot main house is as impressive as the interior. An imposing cathedral-like front entrance flanked by two bell towers features a central balcony, carved woodwork, elaborate stonework and several life-size statues. It is an eclectic yet somehow pleasing mix of architectural styles. The extensive tiered and landscaped gardens enhance the hillside topography. We wandered along gently curving esplanades and crossed flag-stoned patios connected by wide staircases. We passed cascading fountains, graceful statues and glowing alabaster lamps. There are short clipped hedges surrounding colorful flowerbeds and Hearst’s beloved rosebushes. There are Coastal live oaks, towering Mexican fan palms, slender Italian cypresses and large containers overflowing with vibrant seasonal blooms.

Some times dreams do come true … even if they remain unfinished. In one short visit, it is impossible to absorb all that this irreplaceable historical home has to offer. Luckily, other guided tours await us. William Randolph Hearst’s “castle in the sky” will remain a lasting memory for us. It is a rich legacy which should be cherished now and in the future.

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