Saturday, August 16, 2014

Opulent banality

The Hearst Castle Visitor Center is some 1500 feet below the hilltop where William Randolph Hearst's monumental self-indulgence is built. The parking lot is huge, and on the Saturday we visited, completely full of cars. We cruised the rows before giving up and parking, along with other visitors, in the dirt off the access road.

Inside the center, shops and restaurants lined a vast glass-arched central atrium, teeming with people. The ticket line doubled back on itself four rows deep. When we finally reached the front and received our wristbands, there was still a half hour before we could board the bus that would take us on the five-mile ride to the castle.

Visitor Center atrium
Hearst Castle took 28 years to build. William Randolph Hearst contracted architect Julia Morgan in 1919 to build a bungalow on his parents' ranch property in San Luis Obispo County. After that, it kind of got out of hand.

By 1947, when construction was halted, there were three guest cottages in addition to the main house, or "Casa Grande", with its 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, and 19 sitting rooms. There were two swimming pools - one indoors, one outdoors - and 127 acres of gardens, tennis courts, a movie theatre, an airfield, and the world's largest private zoo.

The guy just didn't know when to quit.

The front of Casa Grande
During the bus ride, a recorded introduction narrated by game show host Alex Trebek is accompanied by a soundtrack that's vaguely vintage, combining the trembling clarinets of old film scores with Gershwin tunes. At the top, with a whoosh of air brakes, we disembarked and met our tour guide, a nice California State Parks employee who made sure we knew the rules - stay on the tour carpets, and don't touch anything that isn't a black iron railing or concrete bench.

Central lily pond
Hearst scoured Europe's landmarks for artifacts he bought and warehoused on the chance that they'd come in handy furnishing his castle. He was a pack-rat, a hoarder, whose collections ended up being auctioned after money got tight.

Bits and pieces of European statuary are crammed onto the facade of the main house, a pastiche of stonework that looks like icing on a wedding cake. A Spanish baroque Virgin Mary in a niche flanked by French Gothic tracery, beneath a Roman frieze, surmounts a quatrefoil and gargoyle strewn band with medieval knights' helmets. This crowns a wrought iron gate from a convent in Spain flanked by columns bearing figures of St. John the Baptist in the wild.

Click to "embiggen"
At the top of the Gothic columns, nasty little putti serve as capitals, baring their asses at the gawking crowds, sticking their tongues out and making faces. Everyone's a critic.

We enter through the back way, down a narrow doglegged hall. Inside the Grand Hall,  they have fans blowing through the dark and stuffy room. Huge tapestries hang on the walls above blackened antique choir stalls. There's a stone fireplace large enough to roast an ox. Massive wooden tables display gilt and glass artifacts.

Arranged casually within the baronial splendor are overstuffed couches and armchairs slip-covered in the most fantastic fabric featuring more naked putti cavorting amid a hallucinogenic swirl of scarlet, pink and yellow against a liverish background. Perhaps they are playing among exploded viscera, or maybe it's just flowers and ribbons.  I've never seen more hideous upholstery in my life.

The tour guide says this is where the Hearsts' famous party guests took cocktails. I'd need a drink, too.

The dining room was next - the huge table laid with blue willow plates and paper napkins, which Hearst preferred. There were even vintage jars of ketchup and mustard - one wonders if they are actual old jars or specially mocked up by propbuilders.

The billiard room
The whole place was stifling hot and airless - fans blew in every room. We saw the sitting room, with its gaudy painted ceiling, ripped from yet another European monastery somewhere. We saw the billiard room, with more medieval tapestry, and exquisite Arab tile-work on the archway to the kitchen hallway.

We were ushered into a private theatre that looked like a burlesque house, all red velvet and rows of polychrome female caryatids, their marcelled curls and fine features no doubt mirroring the likeness of Mr. Hearst's paramour, actress Marion Davies.

It was a relief to escape into the breezy California sunlight. We took a quick detour to see the famous Neptune pool, this summer empty of water due to our state's record drought. Still, it looked like the overbuilt set of a movie - and apparently was featured in Spartacus or some gladiator drama.

The buses back to the visitor center load beneath the tennis courts, which allowed for a quick detour to see the indoor Roman pool.

This room was magically beautiful despite its excess, the blue and gold tile-work reflected in the water, a palace of serene decadence. There was a faint but sharp stink of sulfur inside, though - almost as if the water itself could dissolve bathers' bones.

When we returned to the Visitor's Center, after more canned corn from Mr. Trebek, we checked out the souvenir and book store. We could have stayed to watch the movie about the castle, or eaten in one of the many restaurants - the Refectory, for sandwiches; the barbecue joint where you can eat Hearst Beef tri-tip; or La Cuesta Coffee for lattes. We could have gotten a souvenir coin or coffee mug with our initials on it. Instead, we bought a biography of Mr. Hearst, and Marion Davies' cheap but readable tell-all book, "The Times We Had."

Then, we drove out of there, and went walking on the beach at Cambria, where the sea air and salt smell blew the banal dust of Hearst Castle's opulence out of our lungs.


Cheri @ Blog This Mom!® said...

I always liked the ketchup bottles and mustard jars on that long-arse dining room table!

A pastiche of stonework that looks like icing on a wedding cake -- so brilliantly put.

I didn't know about The Times We Had. Sounds a bit along the lines of Wallis & Edward Letters 1931-37, which I rather liked. I'm off to see if it's available on Amazon to add to my list of summer reading that is going to spill into Summer 2015 at the rate I'm going.

Glennis said...

Cheri, Davies' book is really transcriptions of words she recorded over a period of a few weeks after Hearst died. Later, it was published along with explanations and corrections.

It's a fun read, because it's gossipy and personal, like you were sitting next to her and she was telling you stories. It's good natured in almost everything except her comments about the Japanese internment, which shocked me with her lack of concern and racism.

cactus petunia said...

Wow. The next time I make it down to California, will you be my tour guide? Love your descriptions (and those chairs are hideous!).

Happydog said...

I was friends for many years with Jack Wallace, a newspaperman who worked for Hearst during the 1940’s. He had lots of stories about working for the newspapers. One detail I liked was Hearst supposedly kept a huge crystal bowl next to the front door filled with money. It was for his kids when they were going out to help themselves to so they wouldn't keep asking him for spending money. Not just change but hundred dollar bills! Jack was often encouraged by Hearst to help himself, but he never did.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Lovely pics, Aunt Snow.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I've never seen more hideous upholstery in my life.

You just can't buy taste.

That being said, the Roman pool is gorgeous, mainly because that blue is so incredible.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Your writing is exquisite. Thanks to your words and pictures, I feel like I've been there -- and I, too, needed to visit the beach afterward.

Deb said...

I took the tour about 20 years ago, yours sounds like it had a bit more substance, if you can call it that. I enjoyed seeing the pictures and reminiscing. I still remember the pool, and in my mind's eye, that exactly what I remember!

You do make a good tour guide! Can't you just imagine today's guides wishing they could offer the same things you said?!!!