Unusual Tourist Sites: San Simeon Hearst Estate in California Part 1

About the unusual tourist site of San Simeon Estate, home of William Randolph Hearst in California, history and information.

San Simeon State Park, California

Hearst--San Simeon Estate . . . Its costs have been estimated at $20 million to $50 million, it held only a part of what was undoubtedly the largest art collection ever owned by one man, and it had a private zoo with nearly 100 species of animals. San Simeon once spread over 200,000 acres with 50 mi. of ocean front, and here, during the opulent '20s and into the Depression '30s, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and his "good friend," ex-follies girl and film actress Marion Davies, entertained movie stars and statesmen, the famous and would-be famous of an era.

San Simeon also was the model for the Xanadu of Orson Welles's film Citizen Kane just as Hearst himself was the model for the portrait of Kane, a restless, acquisitive tycoon who died murmuring "Rosebud"--a reference to the childhood sled that symbolized all that he wanted in life but could not have.

Nearly every Friday a procession of automobiles or a private train would head north from Hollywood for a weekend at San Simeon. An ebullient Charles Chaplin was a frequent guest and Bernard Shaw dropped in during his celebrated tour of the U.S. Apparently he and Charlie did not share a weekend and history was cheated of what would have been a choice encounter. Winston Churchill and President and Mrs. Coolidge were also entertained.

During the day, visitors were free to choose for themselves among the amusements of the vast ranch. But in the evening all gathered in the appropriately named Assembly Room for the one drink per person that teetotaler Hearst allowed. Promptly at 9 P.M. he and Miss Davies led the company into the elaborate dining room where formal dress was banned and paper napkins and ketchup bottles mingled with the gold dining service. After all, this was "the ranch" as Hearst always called it, just a simple place for the family to gather.

It had once been exactly that, Camp Hill, a family picnic spot on the San Simeon ranch Hearst inherited from his cattle baron father, along with a fortune that Hearst increased through his brand of sensational journalism. In 1919 he began to transform Camp Hill into La Cuesta Encantada--The Enchanted Hill. Until he died over 30 years later, Hearst continued building, rebuilding, and extending. The baroque towers atop La Casa Grande, the main house, replaced an earlier pair that "the Chief" didn't like, and the Neptune pool, probably the largest heated outdoor pool in the world, was enlarged twice before he was satisfied with it.

From his Gothic suite on the 3rd floor, Hearst ran his newspaper empire, supervised constant buying for his collections, and occasionally took to the airwaves to attack Roosevelt's "Raw Deal," England, and communism. While he lived and worked in baronial splendor, Hearst's own bedroom was relatively simply furnished, and was smaller than any of the estate's guest rooms.

An avid, even feverish, collector, Hearst stuffed San Simeon with his spoils, which included not only paintings, antique furnishings, and statues but entire rooms removed from European castles. His taste could most politely be called "eclectic"--embracing classical nude, medieval penitent, and Renaissance dandy.

Overseeing the vast and never-ending construction job was a diminutive and self-effacing woman named Julia Morgan, the 1st woman to earn an architecture degree from Paris's I'Ecole des Beaux Arts. She began working with Hearst when San Simeon was still largely a dream and spent the rest of her active life turning his caprices into stone and mortar.

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