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Ostentatious Facts About Hearst Castle, The Apex Of Excess

Rachel Seigel

Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst and his architect Julia Morgan conceived of Hearst Castle, located in San Simeon, California, in the early 20th century. Officially named The Enchanted Hill, it is also referred to as San Simeon. Today, the castle is a popular tourist attraction as a remarkable example of early 20th-century wealth and decadence. Just like the man it was named after, Hearst Castle has enough drama and intrigue to fill a library, so read on to discover the secrets that hide behind its extravagant walls.


1. Thanks Daddy

The history of Hearst Castle dates back to 1865 when George Hearst (William’s father) purchased 40,000 acres of ranch land. By the time William inherited the land in 1919, it had grown to a whopping 250,000 acres.

2. European Influence

When he was just a boy, Hearst’s mother took him on an 18-month tour of Europe, and the trip made a lasting impression on him. Decades later, multiple European styles of architecture and art found their way into the design of the castle.

3. Larger Than the Average Home

The three guesthouses that are part of Hearst Castle are larger than the average mansion. The largest of the buildings (outside of the main mansion) is Casa del Mar (House of the Sea), which measures 5,350 square feet and has eight bedrooms. The house is where Hearst and his family stayed while the main building was being built and was where Hearst spent the last two years of his residence at the estate.

4. For the Kids

The original plan for the Hearst Castle site was to have a “temple garden” with an ornamental pool and temple, but in 1924, Hearst wrote back to architect Julia Morgan that he wanted the pool to be larger because his wife and children wanted a proper swimming pool. Thus, the castle’s absolutely enormous, Roman-style pool was born.

5. Forget Prohibition

Despite being built during the prohibition era, Hearst still built a wine cellar in the main house with room for 10,000 bottles and a lockable iron door. You know, for…soda or something.

6. Staying Sober

Hearst made no secret of his anti-prohibition stance, but he also disliked drunks and would set limits to how much his guests could drink. He apparently once kicked out poet Dorothy Parker for having one too many, and did the same to actor David Niven, whom he caught hiding smuggled liquor under his bed.

7. Visiting the Hill

Over the course of 20 years, architect Julia Morgan made more than 500 individual trips to the hilltop where Hearst Castle stands today, constantly planning additions and alterations. The trips ended with Hearst’s death in 1951, but had he not passed away, she might have made another 500 trips.

8. A Village in the Sky

Hearst Castle wasn’t originally envisioned to be as large as it is. Hearst and Morgan were picturing a much simpler layout with little bungalows and the feel of a Mediterranean village. As time went on, the project kept growing in scope, but Hearst still maintained that homey feeling by referring to the enormous mansions as “cottages” and the whole estate as “the ranch.”

Yeah, because if there’s one thing that Hearst Castle screams, it’s “homey.”

9. A Piece of Ancient Rome

As if having an opulent outdoor pool weren’t enough, Hearst castle also has an indoor pool inspired by ancient Roman baths like the Baths of Caracalla. The pool is decorated with statues of Roman Gods and Goddesses, and floor-to-ceiling colored glass mosaics. Unlike the Roman baths, however, Hearst’s pool building contained an exercise room, sweat baths, and a handball court.

10. Camp Hill

When Hearst was a kid, he and his family called the spot where Hearst Castle would one day lie “Camp Hill.” They used it for family camping trips—though the trips were probably more like glamping than camping.

11. A True Pioneer.

Julia Morgan was no run-of-the-mill architect. She was the first woman to receive a certification in architecture from the prestigious L’École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and was the first licensed female architect in California. Morgan was also the architect responsible for renovating Hearst’s late mother’s home, so naturally, when he decided that he wanted to build something new on old Camp Hill, he contacted Morgan.

12. Not Quite Finished

Hearst Castle was in a perpetual state of construction for nearly three decades. By the time Hearst was forced to move out due to ill health in 1947, it contained 165 rooms and 123 acres of exotic gardens, enormous terraces, luxurious pools, and wandering walkways, but still wasn’t done. What more did he need?

13. It’s a Fancy-Dress Party

Hearst Castle was famous for its costume parties, with themes specially chosen by Hearst. He would even select the costumes for the guests and have seamstresses and tailors hand-sew them. One party had celebrities trade identities with each other, another asked them to dress like children, and another asked them to arrive as their favorite historical character, for which Charlie Chaplin selected Napoleon.

14. It’s Just a Wall

Since Hearst had more than enough money to do whatever he wanted, for his 75th birthday he held a circus-themed party which included a full-sized merry-go-round…inside the house! The feature was so big it required a wall to be torn down to make it fit, and when the party was over, he just paid to have it rebuilt. Why not?

15. World Tour

All of the decorations at Hearst Castle come from different places around the world. There are Egyptian sculptures in the courtyard, Roman columns surrounding the pool, and art-deco ceilings from Spain.

16. A Genuine Safari

One of the features of Hearst Castle was the world’s largest private zoo. Hearst collected animals from all over the world, including zebras, antelope, kangaroos, giraffes, and more. He envisioned the space as a place where guests could view the animals wandering freely in a gigantic paddock. Although the zoo was dismantled due to financial problems over a period of 15 years, tourists visiting the castle can still see zebras roaming in the pastures.

17. Earthquake Proof

No building is totally safe from natural disasters, but Hearst must have been aware of the potentially damaging effects of California earthquakes, as he had the exterior walls built from reinforced concrete that’s resistant to earthquakes.

18. A Scandalous Arrangement

Hearst originally intended the castle to be home to himself, his wife Millicent and his five children, but they separated when his affair with Hollywood actress Marion Davies became public. Since she wouldn’t give him a divorce, Hearst just had Davies live with him in the castle until his death.

19. Selling it Back

Hearst loved Davies so much that he willed the entire estate to her and not his children or his estranged wife. Luckily for the family, she was extremely generous about it and sold it back to them for just a dollar.

20. Time to Go

Technically, all invitations to Hearst castle were open-ended and guests could stay as long as they wanted, but several guests observed that the longer they stayed, the farther away their seat moved from Hearst’s at dinner. When they reached the end of the table, that meant it was time for them to leave.

21. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Hearst Castle is located around 225 miles away from Hollywood, so it wasn’t exactly close to any major airports or celebrity homes. In order for guests to access the estate, they could either take a private train and then a car to the castle, or they would fly in on his private airstrip. Not a bad way to travel.

22. Best Laid Plans

Some of the drawings and plans for the castle reveal a number of elements that Hearst had wished for or intended but were never completed. Among them were plans for a ballroom that would have connected the north and south wings in the big house and at least two more guest houses. One can only imagine what that would have looked like.

23. Tourist Attraction

Seven years after Hearst’s death, the Hearst Corporation donated the castle, the gardens, and most of its contents to the state of California. The castle opened to the public in 1958, and today serves as a major tourist attraction in California, attracting 850,000 visitors in 2018 alone.

24. Setting a Schedule

For the most part, staying at the castle was a casual affair, but Hearst did set out a few rules for the guests based on his own habits. Mornings were left free to sleep in or explore, breakfast could be almost anything they wanted, and then Hearst and Davies would appear around 1 pm for a buffet-style lunch. I could get used to that!

25. Blocking the View

Hearst loved his coastal views from the top of Casa Grande, but what he didn’t like looking at was the water reservoir that was visible from the top floors of the big house. So again, in a perfectly normal decision, he decided to have 7,000 pine trees planted to block the view. Many of those trees remain standing today.

26. Surprise!

The assembly room was the main room used for entertaining, and a special feature of the room is a secret door hidden in the wood paneling next to the fireplace which allowed Hearst to come and go without notice.

27. Did it Have a Sorting Hat?

The rooms inside Casa Grande so closely resembled European castles that the dining hall was used as inspiration for Hogwarts’ dining hall in the Harry Potter movies.

28. Phones at Either End

At close to 2,500 square feet, the assembly room is so large that phones were placed at both ends of the room to enable guests to call one another so they didn’t have to walk across it. That probably would have taken forever!

29. A Modest Room

You’d think that a billionaire like Hearst would be tempted to have the largest bedroom as his quarters, but surprisingly, his room was pretty modest in size (compared to the rest of the house). It’s unknown why he didn’t have a larger room—it’s possible that he chose it for the ceiling, which is a 15th-century polychrome wood ceiling from Teruel, Spain that’s considered to be one of the “most important ceilings on the property.”

What’s the most important ceiling in your house?

30. Restoring the Madonna

In 2014, Lady Gaga shot the music video for her song “G.U.Y.” at San Simeon. Perhaps as a way of saying thank you for the use of the castle, or maybe just because she wanted to, Gaga donated $250,000 to the Hearst Castle Preservation Foundation, which paid for the restoration of two hilltop sculptures. That’s right: more than $200k…for two statues.

31. Don’t Let Them Starve

Hearst was quite the softy when it came to any living thing, tree, plant, animal or even rodent, and he couldn’t bear to hurt the mice that roamed the castle. Instead, he ordered the butler to leave bits of food around for the mice to eat and had them released from the wire-basket traps each morning. His generosity did not however extend to rats, and he did allow snap-traps to catch them.

32. Oedipus Complex

There was one person who Hearst revered above anyone else, and that was his mother Phoebe. On occasion, when someone visited whom he deemed “morally fit” and worthy, he would order his mother’s monogrammed sheets to be used on the guest beds. He also had a huge number of Madonnas in the castle, which probably also says something about his feelings for his mother.

33. Her One Regret

Hearst only gave people one shot at accepting an invitation to visit Hearst Castle, and an invitation meant you were a VIP in his eyes. Katharine Hepburn stated that she regretted turning him down when he invited her, as she never got another chance to be a guest at the castle. Her loss.

34. A Little Much

It never seemed to occur to Hearst that not all of his guests were comfortable with long horseback rides. Many of them came to dread the excessively long trail rides that he insisted they take so he could show off the land and trails. After a particularly long trip, Clark Gable once said, “When we get to the next brow of a hill, we’ll see Los Angeles.”

35. I Need to Make a Call

Guests at the castle never had to worry about being cut off from the real world, as Hearst had hundreds of telephones on the property. He had them hidden in trees, under stones, and at the edge of the pool. He employed three full-time operators to keep it all running smoothly and to make sure everybody was happy.

36. A Veritable Forest

Hearst really loved trees, and in order to ensure that no trees were harmed in the building of the castle, he had live trees dug up and moved to a new location on the side of the nearby mountains. He also had a whopping 70,000 additional trees planted on the property during his years there, which would have been enough to populate a forest.

37. His Other Room

While the castle was under construction, and then in his later years, Hearst lived in what is described as a “narrow” room in the Casa Dal Mar guest house, so named for its breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. Of course, considering that nothing on that property lacked in opulence and grandeur, it wasn’t exactly roughing it.

38. Seriously Rare

Art collecting was another of Hearst’s hobbies, and he managed to get his hands on some extremely rare art to decorate the castle. Four original 16th-century tapestries hang in the assembly room. To give you an idea of their rarity, the same tapestries that hang in the Louvre are actually copies. Aside from these four, only a fragment of another tapestry from the set still exists.

39. Nothing is Off Limits

Unlike many museums, 98% of the objects and art in the castle are on display to the public. The other 2% is either being conserved, lent out to museums and galleries, or in storage, but considering how big a collection it is, that’s a comparatively small amount.

40. Rosebud

The 1941 Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane was a satirical look at Hearst and his castle. Charles Foster Kane’s place Xanadu is filled with “paintings, pictures, statues, the very stones of many another palace—a collection of everything so big it can never be cataloged or appraised; enough for ten museums; the loot of the world.” This was an obvious reference to Hearst’s passion for collecting stuff.

Furious, Hearst fought desperately to keep the movie off screens. Though his plan didn’t entirely work, he did manage to generate enough bad press that the film lost money and it wasn’t quite the breakout for Welles that was expected. Little did he know that nearly 60 years later, the film would be counted as one of the greatest movies of all time.

41. Dinner and a Movie

Not surprisingly, Hearst had a private movie theatre built inside the castle that could hold 50 people. Each night after dinner he’d show a new film that he’d had imported from Los Angeles that day, and they typically either starred his mistress, Marion Davies, or one of the other guests at the castle. In 2015, with permission from the Hearts family, the castle screening room showed Citizen Kane for the first time.

I’m sure ol’ William is glad he wasn’t alive to see that.

42. Harmless Fun

From time-to-time, one of the guests at Hearst castle would attempt a prank which was generally not well received by Hearst. Cary Grant flew over the castle in a plane and dropped sacks of flour on it. When Grant returned, he found his bags packed and was asked to leave. Obviously, he was the only one who found it funny. Harpo Marx also met with Hearst’s displeasure when he removed several mink coats from the vaults and dressed the estate’s many statues.

It snowed that night, which may not have been great for the coats, but at least the statues were warm.

43. Tear it Down!

Hearst was quite the perfectionist, and if he didn’t like something, he thought nothing of having it torn down and starting again. Once, as he drove down his private road, he decided he didn’t like the way one of the guest homes looked as he came up the rise. So he did what any of us would do: he had it torn down and rebuilt elsewhere on the property.

He also disliked the way that the original twin towers that stood on top of the main house looked once they were completed. Despite having approved the plan with Morgan, he also had those torn down and replaced at a high financial cost.

Sources1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15


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