California: Hearst Castle Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A California State Historical Monument that is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this 165-room, 127-acre estate was built by and for newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst; the architect was Julia Morgan, and the landscape designer was Morgan, assisted by Orrin Peck, Gardner Daily, and Isabella Worn.

Site Office

Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument

P.O. Box 8

750 Hearst Castle Road

San Simeon, CA 93452

ph.: (800) 444-4445; (805) 927-2020

Hearst Castle is an appropriate monument to a man who did nothing in his life by half measures. William Randolph Hearst built a far-reaching publishing empire that influenced the news as well as reported it, amassed a huge collection of art and antiquities, produced (and inspired) motion pictures, socialized with the wealthiest and most famous people of his time, and presided over not one but several vast and luxurious homes, including a million-acre cattle ranch in Mexico, a castle in Wales, and numerous New York properties. Of all Hearst’s homes, however, Hearst Castle at San Simeon is the most famous and is said to be where Hearst was happiest.

A Publishing and Motion-Picture Empire

When construction began at San Simeon in 1919, Hearst was fifty-six years old and had been in the newspaper business for thirty-two years. He began running his first newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, in 1887. His father, George Hearst, who had made a fortune in mining and ranching, had acquired the newspaper in 1880 as payment for a debt. William, having been expelled from Harvard University and looking for something to do with his life, decided he would like to take over the Examiner.

He invested in up-to-date printing technology, improved the newspaper’s appearance, and began publishing the types of stories for which Hearst papers became famous–sensationalistic, often manufactured news, and investigative campaigns to expose various misdeeds. The Examiner’s circulation increased and its financial health improved, and Hearst soon added newspapers in New York, Chicago, and other cities. A measure of Hearst’s influence was his New York Journal’s successful advocacy of war with Spain in 1898. His papers promoted numerous other causes; early in Hearst’s career, he took markedly liberal stands, but he turned quite conservative as he grew older. He also became involved in politics more directly. He was elected to the U.S. Congress from New York in 1902 and 1904 but ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City and governor of New York State, and he lost his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Hearst continued adding to his business ventures, going into magazine publishing in the early 1900’s and film production in the teens. Films were a way for Hearst to promote the career of his mistress, actress Marion Davies, whom he met in 1916 when she was a performer in the Ziegfeld Follies stage show. Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Productions starred Davies in forty-six films between 1917 and 1937. While Hearst’s wife, Millicent, spent most of her time on the East Coast, Davies would become his hostess at San Simeon.

Designing a Castle in California

Hearst’s family had owned property at San Simeon since 1865, when his father bought the Piedra Blanca ranch there. George Hearst subsequently added the adjacent Santa Rosa and San Simeon ranches. George Hearst died in 1891, leaving everything to his widow, Phoebe Apperson Hearst. When she died in 1918, she willed the land to her only child, William Randolph Hearst. He dubbed the hilltop property La Cuesta Encantada–The Enchanted Hill.

He initially envisioned a reasonably modest vacation home, along with some guest houses, on the San Simeon property. He, his wife, and five sons had made frequent camping trips there. In 1919, he retained Julia Morgan to begin designing the buildings. In 1894, Morgan had been one of the first women to receive a degree in civil engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, and in 1902 she became the first woman to receive a certificate in architecture from the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. She had worked on the design and construction of Phoebe Hearst’s estate, Hacienda del Pozo de Verona in Pleasanton, California, from 1903 to 1910, and in 1915 she had designed the Spanish Mission-style headquarters for William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner newspaper. Morgan received substantial input from her client on the design for the buildings at San Simeon, and the plans grew ever more elaborate. Hearst decided he wanted a complex of structures reminiscent of a hill town in Spain, and from this point his vision continued to evolve. As biographer W. A. Swanberg put it in Citizen Hearst (1961):

San Simeon . . . was a mosaic of Hearst’s memories, inspirations and possessions. In his card-index memory he had recollections of decorative schemes and arrangements he had seen in European castles and cathedrals, and which he wished to incorporate in his own palace. In his New York warehouse and in huge basement crypts at San Simeon he had the antique accumulation of years–entire gothic rooms, carved ceilings, choir stalls, paneling, staircases, corbels, stained glass, sarcophagi, mantels, columns, tapestries, a thousand other things–which he was determined to make a part of his castle. Thus, San Simeon was not only a vast construction project but also a complicated assembly job that kept Hearst and Miss Morgan in repeated sessions of close consultation. The castle was not so much a home as it was a museum, a setting for Hearst.

The first buildings to be completed were the three guest houses, set in a half-moon formation around the main building. Although Hearst’s and Morgan’s design plans referred to the guest houses as “cottages,” each actually is a mansion. The houses were constructed in an Italian Renaissance style. La Casa del Mar (house of the sea), the largest of the three, was ready for occupancy by 1921. During most of the 1920’s, Hearst spent his time at San Simeon in that house. La Casa del Monte (house of the mountain) and La Casa del Sol (house of the sun) were finished by 1924. Each of the houses was furnished with impressive collections of art and antiques, many between five hundred and one thousand years old.

Excavation for the Mediterranean Revival-style main building, La Casa Grande, began in 1922. The initial plan for the home called for one tower, but as the plans evolved Morgan and Hearst settled on the two-tower design that makes the 137-foot-high building so striking today. The white stone-and-concrete facade was decorated with carved teak, colored tiles, antique Spanish limestone figures, and cast-stone ornaments created by contemporary artisans. By 1926, enough of the house was finished that it was livable, but many sections were not completed until the 1930’s, and it always remained a work in progress, as Hearst continued to come up with ideas. Hearst moved into La Casa Grande in 1928, and while he maintained other homes, it became his primary one.

Among the striking interior elements of La Casa Grande are the huge Assembly Room, a two-story, eighty-by-thirty-foot sitting room by which one enters the house; the Refectory, or dining room, containing a twenty-eight-foot stone mantel and life-size carved figures of saints; and the Doge’s Suite, modeled after the Doge’s Palace in Venice. The home also contains libraries, a theater (in which Hearst and Davies showed films), and a restaurant-size kitchen outfitted with the most up-to-date equipment of the time.

In all, La Casa Grande and the guest houses contain 165 rooms. La Casa Grande covers 60,645 square feet; La Casa del Mar, 5,875; La Casa del Monte, 2,291; and La Casa del Sol, 2,604. The complex contains many antique architectural fixtures obtained by Hearst during his travels and some reproductions. There also are numerous antique furnishings, including Egyptian and Renaissance sculptures, Roman sarcophagi, Chinese and Greek vases, Persian carpets, and clerical tapestries. Many other wealthy people of Hearst’s time acquired huge and diverse collections of art and antiquities, but the Hearst collection at San Simeon is one of the largest that still exists.

The Estate Grounds

The grounds at San Simeon are as impressive as the buildings. The main outdoor pool, the Neptune Pool, is more than one hundred feet long and has a capacity of 345,000 gallons. It is surrounded by semicircular marble colonnades and a Greco-Roman temple facade. A terrace that overlooks the pool sits atop seventeen dressing rooms. The pool is notable for its engineering as well as its appearance. Set on a site excavated from the hillside, the pool is supported by reinforced concrete beams. Water from nearby natural springs is captured in two huge reservoirs, one holding up to 345,000 gallons, another able to contain 1.2 million gallons. Heating and filtration equipment are housed underneath the pool. An opulent indoor pool, the Roman Pool, lies beneath two tennis courts. The pool is lined with Venetian glass and gold.

The gardens on the castle grounds were designed to complement the buildings. Ornamented with statues, fountains, terraces, and walkways, the gardens are reminiscent of those in Spanish and Italian villas, with some American touches. Hearst gave instructions as to the types of flowers, shrubs, and trees to be planted, while Morgan designed the layout of the gardens, with assistance from Hearst’s friend Orrin Peck, architect Gardner Daily, and horticulturalist Isabella Worn. The primary flowers planted were roses, azaleas, rhododendrons, fuchsias, and camellias, Hearst’s favorite. Five greenhouses were built to supply the garden.

One of the more unusual features of Hearst’s estate was a two thousand-acre zoo. The zoo was begun in late 1924 and for several years thereafter visitors could encounter wild animals including lions, bears, giraffes, and elephants, housed in spaces designed by Morgan to make the animals both visible and comfortable. By 1939, however, Hearst had given his animal collection to the San Diego and San Francisco zoos.

Citizen Hearst and the Final Years

Another kind of wildlife flourished at the Hearst estate, especially during the 1930’s. Hearst and Davies entertained most of the established and rising stars of Hollywood during that period. Guests included motion-picture stars Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, and David Niven. The masquerade parties held on Hearst’s birthday were particular highlights. Celebrities of the sports world visited San Simeon as well; tennis tournaments there featured such stars as Bill Tilden and Alice Marble.

One Hollywood celebrity who attracted Hearst’s wrath instead of his hospitality was actor-director writer Orson Welles, who satirized Hearst in the classic 1941 motion picture Citizen Kane. The film told the story of ruthless newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane, ending his life alone and unloved in a vast estate called Xanadu, after having tried to make an opera star of his talentless wife, Susan Alexander Kane. Hearst’s newspapers refused to review the film and forbid any mention of Welles or of RKO Pictures, the studio that released it. Hearst was abetted in his campaign by Louella Parsons, who wrote a Hollywood gossip column for his papers; Hearst’s son, William Randolph Hearst, Jr., contended, perhaps disingenuously, that the anti-Welles vendetta was all Parson’s doing. The uproar over the film made it difficult for RKO to get it into theaters, but the few audiences it reached liked it, as did reviewers. Most critics and scholars continue to consider Citizen Kane one of the greatest films ever produced.

By the late 1930’s Hearst’s power was diminishing and his finances were shaky. He had earned a fortune, but his spending more than kept pace with his income; he was estimated to have spent between $30 million and $40 million on the San Simeon estate alone. In 1937, the Securities and Exchange Commission refused a Hearst Organization request to issue $35.5 million in debentures, noting that Hearst’s companies already were under a staggering load of debt. Hearst turned financial control of his holdings over to lawyer Clarence Shearn, who appointed a committee of Hearst Organization executives, known as the Conservation Committee, to begin selling money-losing businesses as well as many of Hearst’s art treasures, although the collection at San Simeon remained fantastic. The committee’s efforts returned Hearst’s corporate structure to some measure of health, helped along by improved newspaper circulation and advertising during World War II–a war that Hearst had urged the United States to avoid.

Hearst remained in reasonably good health well into his eighties. He attempted unsuccessfully to regain financial control of his publishing enterprises but continued to involve himself in editorial matters. He retained his enthusiasm for building as well, with additions to La Casa Grande going on until 1947. That year, Hearst suffered a serious heart seizure, and his doctors advised him to leave San Simeon so that he could have better access to medical care. Hearst and Davies moved to Beverly Hills.

When Hearst died in 1951, his heirs and executors donated the San Simeon estate to the state of California, and the state opened it to the public in 1958.

Hearst Castle is open for tours every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. The site is so vast that there are separate tours for various portions of it. About 1.1 million visitors come to Hearst Castle every year.

For Further Information
  • Boutelle, Sara Holmes. Julia Morgan, Architect. Rev. and updated ed. New York: Abbeville Press, 1995. Provides many details on the architect’s work at San Simeon and elsewhere. Informative and beautifully illustrated.
  • Hearst, William Randolph, Jr., with Jack Casserly. The Hearsts: Father and Son. Niwot, Colo.: Roberts Rinehart, 1991. Far less objective than Swanberg’s biography listed below, but certainly intimate. Both biographies contain information about the development of the San Simeon estate and Hearst’s life there.
  • Swanberg, W. A. Citizen Hearst. Reprint. New York: Galahad Books, 1996. One of the best biographies of William Randolph Hearst. Lively and comprehensive.
Categories: History