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Hearst Castle – residential design mind blower

by Steve McKee on May 14, 2006

For spring break the four McKees took a trip in a rented RV tour along the central coast of California. Big Sur, beach time, watching movies at night on the laptop, family fun all round. This trip would also take us by Hearst Castle, the ultra-splendid getaway palace created by William Randolph Hearst on a big hill overlooking the ocean. I’d heard that it was sort of the “last word” on the subject of residential building projects. For years I’ve admired its go-for-it spirit from afar thanks to glossy photos in a big hardbound book titled “Julia Morgan Architect.” Now it was time to pay a visit to Julia’s magnum opus. I knew she was good, but I didn’t expect this.

Two things got me. One was the comfortable scale of the place. Despite its size and over-the-top nature, it had great human scale throughout. Thank you, Julia Morgan. More on that later.

The other aspect that dazzled, less tangible perhaps, was sensing the amazing amount of human energy that went into the creation of the place. Not even counting the physical labor (itself worthy of awe) there was something even more impressive about the castle: the decisions that had to be made at every turn.

By that I mean the thousands, the tens of thousands, of decisions that were made in arriving at its final form amazed me. If you’ve ever agonized over (or delighted in) picking out a kitchen tile backsplash or a hardwood color and texture, or worked to incorporate some antique corbels you found at Urban Ore into your house, and you tried to do so with maximum panache, you will appreciate the enormous task that owner William Hearst and designer Julia Morgan had in creating an elaborate palace-like compound covering an entire hilltop. Equal credit goes to the both of them, he of enormous financial resources but of equally enormous energy and enthusiasm for putting himself into the creation of something truly unique, and she of enormous design talent and deft hand in bringing off the mix of styles. It was a collaboration for the ages.

I had decided that we should take the evening tour so that we could experience the twilight and evening ambience of Hearst Castle. As the sun neared the Pacific Ocean we had a twenty minute bus ride through oak trees up a very green hill. Then we were let out at the base of a wonderfully not-large neo-classical cascade of steps that made their way up to some sort of marble structure with an arched wood door. The stairs were just wide enough for two to walk comfortably side by side. With a few baroque curves and a landing halfway up, they were like the Spanish steps of Rome, except more cute and dear. For some reason I really liked that our guide didn’t point out this resemblance. If you got the reference, good for you, if you didn’t, well, the stairs were still a delight.

Then came a stop by the famous Neptune swimming pool, poster image for the castle with its huge size and Greek temples and statues lining the sides. Las Vegas has since ruined this sort of imagery for most of us. Maybe lining pools with white statues is not the current idea of how to “class up the joint” but if anyplace gets to do it, it’s Hearst Castle. When we saw it, the pool was ninety percent drained due to a leak from a somewhat recent earthquake and, without the optical illusion by which water refracts the angle of things, we could see that almost the whole thing was really quite deep. With the super-sizing of the pool, the delicate human scale that I was starting to dig about Hearst Castle was stretched the other way. To me, the renowned pool seemed not as captivating as even the steps up the hill had been (though I bet I’m in the minority on that opinion.)

Before entering the main building our group of twelve was ushered through some of the guest-houses (called “cottages” on Julia Morgan’s plans), done in a Spanish Mediterranean style. Julia Morgan and some of her contemporaries from eighty years ago like Bernard Maybeck were just plain great at getting the scale and details right with these sorts of styles. From the uphill approach, the guest-house appeared as a one-story. We waited in the gathering twilight in the little forecourt to enter while our guide went on about some historical trivia, but I was too busy trying to take in all the visual nuance and detail to listen. Even the round downspouts were embossed with a design. Their placement on the very corners of the cottage made for a fine visual accent. Softly glowing lantern globes hung at each corner supported on a shapely curled wrought-iron bracket that straddled the downspouts in a delightful way.

And that was just the beginning. For the next hour or so we explored guest suites, a reception hall, Hearst’s gothic study, a dining hall surprisingly intimate despite its great ceiling height, and other rooms of all sizes.

Some rooms had ceilings supported by rows of grand pointed wood arches that gave those rooms a sense of place that was a joy. Doorways were set off with carved stone gothic arches brought from Europe by Hearst, recycled from some twelfth century building and set perfectly in place in Morgan’s design. The place positively sang out with architectural interest at every turn.

There is a long tradition of people carrying home favorite images from their travels and then incorporating these favorite elements into the design of their own homes. Hadrian did it in his villa outside Rome thousands of years ago. I did it last winter in the remodel of a rental house of mine when I made sure the columns setting off my dining room had a historically correct architrave (beam with crown moulding) at its top. I was so proud of myself for that. I can tell you that Hearst did this sort of thing like nobody’s business. And of course Julia Morgan then made sure these elements worked together into a cohesive whole.

Oh sure, Hearst had money, but it took a lot more than that to pull off the Castle. In a display case I saw a telegram from Hearst to Morgan in which he suggested incorporating the zoo into the design of the maze because it would make the maze more exciting for people to suddenly come upon tigers in their wanderings. They didn’t actually build it that way, but the telegram demonstrates the kind of playful mind that was needed to create this place.

Opulence and fanciness on its own doesn’t do it for me. If you’ve ever been to a Blackhawk home or a Las Vega hotel lobby that didn’t get this fanciness right, you’ll know how bad that can be. Simply having a fireplace in almost every room isn’t enough to earn my respect. Ah, but if there is a well-done fireplace in almost every room, that is quite another story.

As our bus drove us back down the hill in the dark I thought about what I had just experienced. Good design work is always infused with human scale. Cozy spaces feel correctly cozy, grand spaces feel correctly grand. We feel at home there in ways we find hard to express. I wouldn’t have thought I could have felt that way about a castle. Back in the RV it was my turn to sleep in the highly snuggy berth over the driver’s area. I loved it.

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