No one knows for sure exactly how much Hearst Castle cost to build, it was a work in progress from 1919 when William Randolph Hearst inherited the land from his mother until his death at age 88 in 1951.
Hearst employed San Francisco architect Julia Morgan to build his dream home on his favorite place on earth, collaborated would probably be a better word as Hearst was intimately involved in the design throughout the many years of construction on it's 165 rooms, 127 acres of gardens and the two pools, Neptune and Roman, that are the highlight of any visit to Hearst Castle.
In 1957, after Hearst's death, the Hearst Corporation donated the Castle to the State of California but without an endowment for operating expenses which helps explain the high tour costs. The furnishings are original to the Castle, not something you always see when touring historic homes which often have replica furniture belonging to the period but not the original. Hearst was so involved in the purchase and placement that it is almost essential to the visit that the original furnishings be in place. The docent said the family was allowed to take out so many pieces per year under their agreement but that period had long since lapsed.
Visits to the Hearst Castle are by guided tour only and each tour takes approximately 1 hour, 45 minutes including the bus ride up and down. If you are taking more than 1 tour, you must take the bus ride back down to the visitor center so they recommend scheduling tours 2 hours apart. Although exhausting, you could probably do all four tours in one day if you are willing to part with $80-$96 ($20/$24 per tour depending on season).
We did a tour at 9 am, watched the 40 minute film included with tour #1 at 11:15 and then did a 2nd tour at 12:20. It was perfect timing for us but if you're thinking about grabbing a snack, a little more time in between might be good.
It is highly recommended that you reserve in advance on their website especially during the popular summer months and on the weekends.
There are 4 different tours to Hearst Castle during the day plus 1 evening tour, tour #1 is recommended for first time visitors as an overview and is the least strenuous of the tours.
Tour #1 started at the Neptune Pool, which is included on all tours, then took us to one of the three guesthouses, Casa del Sol (House of the Sun) before entering the main house, Casa Grande. On this tour you only see a fraction of the main house but it's some of the most important rooms in the Castle, the sitting room where Hearst's guests assembled before dinner, the dining hall, the billards room and the movie theater. The final stop on the tour is the Roman pool which is also included on all of the tours.
Tour #1 is the only tour that includes admission to the 40 minute film “Hearst Castle, Building the Dream” which features a history of the building of the Castle and some film clips taken during the Castle's heyday. You can watch it before or after your tour.
Although I joke about the name, Hearst Castle is a architectual marvel to behold.
In 1919, a female architect, Julia Morgan was hired by William Randolph Hearst to build "something that would be more comfortable" than the platform tents which he previously used at the ranch. Over the course of the next 28 years, Morgan supervised nearly every aspect of construction at Hearst Castle, including two swimming pools, The outdoor Roman Pool and the indoor Neptune pool which has 24 carat gold leaf mosaic tiles throughout the structure.
There are 5 guided tours. Four daytime tours and one Evening Tour are available. Each tour costs $20 usd. If you plan to do more than 1 tour make sure you have all day to spend here. The tour 1 is an "overview" tour and if you only have limited time to spend and have never been to the castle, then this is the tour you should take. Tour one includes admission to the 45 minute National Geographic movie about Hearst and the building of the castle.
The tour last 1 hour 45 minutes which includes a bus ride to and from the castle.
Hearst Castle is open for tours daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day..
After going on tour #1 at 9 am and viewing the 40 minute film, we hopped back on another bus for our 12:20 pm tour #3. This tour was a smaller, more manageable group and our guide was very good, encouraging questions and allowing ample time to gawk at all of the antiques throughout the tour. Once again the tour started at the Neptune Pool, we then visited the inside of a second guest house, Casa del Monte (house of the mountains) before heading into the north wing of the main house.
The north wing of the house is in sharp contrast to the ornate gothic main floor that we saw on tour #1, this part of the house was built and decorated after the Great Depression when Hearst had lost quite a bit of his fortune so the decor is a little more restrained, the walls mostly painted white and the furnishings a bit more modest although still quite impressive. The attached pictures are all from the North Wing.
The final stop is the Roman Pool, included on all of the tours.
This tour had more stairs than tour #1 but we stopped frequently on the way up and I didn't find it at all strenuous.
The Neptune Pool is included on every visit to Hearst Castle and it's easy to understand why the folks running Hearst Castle want you to see this gem. The aqua water set against the beautiful white marble with the mountains in the background make for stunning photos and it's a great place to start a tour of what I believe to be the most fabulous (former) private residence in the United States.
The Neptune Pool was constructed between 1924-1936, the pool that you see today is the third revision of the Neptune Pool, each revision making a larger pool presumably to accomodate more statues that Hearst purchased. Hearst was an active man and he enjoyed swimming in this pool. Dressing rooms were added in 1928 and can be seen on tour #4.
I think our docent said that docents were allowed to swim in this pool one day a year otherwise it's merely there for visitors to enjoy looking at. What a pity!
A call at 8am from our hotel in Morro Bay provided the earliest tour at 12:20PM the same day during spring off-season, so this place is busy. This provided the advantage of a walk around the rock at this pleasant fishing villiage where we stayed and lunch at the small town of Cambria during the 30 minute drive to San Simeon. I saw many purchasing tickets at the window, angry that they would have to wait around for hours before their tour. The town of San Simeon, a few minutes south on Highway 1, is mainly a collection of corporate logo hotels and restaurants devoted to tourists, and is not, in my humble opinion, the best place to stay for a few days. Hearst Castle is by far the biggest attraction in the area, and a lonely one at that. Camping and RV parking is available in the area at reasonable rates. Parking is free, but remember where you left your car as the lot is not marked by section signs. Also, parking is pretty exposed except for cyprus trees that line the lots. We were able to find a little shade for our car, so that the dog would not bake, but then we visited in a cooler month. Spring and Fall are probably the best times to visit, with May and June being foggy, January through March windy and rainy, and August a zoo. No maps or layouts of the castle are provided or sold to tourists, and so count your steps carefully as the guide confuses your group through the maze of floors and rooms. There is however, ONE $60- book in the bookstore there that has a crude layout of Julia Morgan's masterpiece buildings at this Hearst Mansion. Many families bring their children, but in general, Hearst Castle always was and remains an adult attraction because of the sophistication of the art and architecture. Active children will love climbing the many hundreds steps, but those carrying an infant or young child certainly will not. There are few if any extra provisions for tired senior citizens or the disabled.
Casa Grande is the main part of the Hearst Castle, built after the three guesthouses were completed. The four different tours cover different sections of Casa Grande, on tour #1 we saw the common areas on the main floor of the Casa Grande including the assembly room where Hearst's guests assembled before dinner, the dining room, the billiards room and the movie theater. The lower level of the Casa Grande resembles a church in many ways, particularly the dining hall with it's gothic choir stalls and arched windows. The original plans called for stained glass windows but Hearst changed his mind and decided it would be better to see the sky.
The guide pointed out the ketchup and mustard on the table and the paper napkins that guests would have used, after all this was a ranch ;-)
On tour #4 we visited the North Wing of the Casa Grande which is a more modern section of the Castle and decorated after the Great Depression.
All tours begin at the Neptune Pool which is a number of steps up from the bus drop off. During our visit, the pool was empty, unfortunately, revealing though the wonderful tile work below. The guides informed us that the pool had been leaking 1,000 gallons per day, and was up for restoration work. The landscape architecture of Julia Morgan is outstanding here, combining authentic Greco-Roman era capitals, columns, and parts of the entablature, with imitative Vermont marble colonnades of Classic Ionian style and French art-deco style marble nymphs and swans, within a totally original layout that accentuates the value of Hearst's purchased authentic artifacts and the modern artistic sculptures and pool tile work. It's hard to image any old world creation as stunning as this, particularly given the equally stunning landscape behind it. In the first image note how the busts are integrated with lamps into the steps, with the French made marble statues in the near background.
Julia Morgan designed the building to withstand the seismic forces. Given the strong quakes experienced within recent years, the rebar reinforced poured concrete structure appears to be doing well. Thus, the appearance of marble block on the exterior is mostly a facade of decorative stone, tile, and molded stucco over a modern building. The insides of rooms are essentially concrete "boxes" with the wood ceilings and other decorative details bolted on. Really, this shouldn't be considered a compromise in terms of authentic building construction because buildings like the Taj Mahal and castles of Europe are underneath nothing like the shell of stonework seen on the outside, and those buildings do risk collapse. Many Greco-Roman era buildings have collapsed during earthquakes, destroying priceless treasures inside, so I am satisfied that at least the Hearst Castle buildings are a suitable place for the collection of antiquities and renaissance treasures stuffed inside. Actually, the original plan required construction of the "guest houses" first, so that Hearst could entertain friends, and later construction of the grand Casa Grande.
The facade of Casa Grande was inspired by the Santa Maria la Mayor cathedral in Rhonda, Spain. Having two bell towers and a grand entrance doorway, Morgan managed to combine in the facade fragmentary authentic art collected by Hearst with skillfully reproduced work created by masters, many of whom were California craftsman. The towers have since been cleaned, improved or restored as the official pictorial guide shows scaffolding around them after the acquisition by the State of California. In some cases, fragmentary art deemed to fragile has been removed to storage and replaced with exact replicas that can take better the punishment of sun and rain. Since we didnt' take Tour 1, Tour 2 & 3 entered Casa Grande through a side door that had direct access to a stairwell leading to the guest rooms on the second floor, so my images of the cathedral facade are rudimentary at best.
Casa del Sol, or House of the Sun, named because the view faced the sunset was one of three guest houses that were built before the Casa Grande was built. This guesthouse has 18 rooms including 8 bedrooms. Casa del Sol is visited on tour #1, our visit was a little rushed because of the obnoxious tour group we were on but I think all tours are limited to the four bedrooms and four bathrooms on the 1st floor. No flash photography is allowed in any of the interiors and most of my shots from inside this guesthouse didn't turn out.
House beneath the tennis courts, the salt water Roman Pool is also included at the end of every visit, I found this indoor pool even more visually stunning than the outdoor Neptune Pool. The walls are covered in mostly blue mosaic tiles from Murano, Italy accented with 24 karat gold designs. The Greek and Roman statues surrounding the pool and even the stairs going into the pool are marble.
We didn't have time to do all of the tours and we were there on a day when the evening tour wasn't offered. Here's an overview of the other tours:
Tour Two covers the upper floors of the main house (Casa Grande) including the Doge's Suite, "The Cloisters" four guest rooms flanked by open walkways, the Library, the Gothic Suite which is the entire third floor and includes Hearst's private suite, library and office, and the kitchen plus the Neptune and Roman pools which are included on all tours.
Tour Four covers the gardens and grounds of Hearst Castle, the third guest house, Casa del Mar (House of the Sea) which Hearst lived in during his final years, the hidden terrace, the wine cellar, the Neptune Pool dressing rooms and the Neptune and Roman pools which are included on all of the tours.
The evening tour visits some of the same rooms as the daytime tours but features docents in period dress from the 1930s.
Hearst was a voracious collector of artwork, often on the New York auction scene, where the origin and authenticity could only be speculated about by experts. He worked with Julia Morgan very closely to integrate 16th century wooden panels from the music room of a monastery that could easily have been discarded or simply framed for decoration in someone's home. Morgan found the talents of several artists living in Berkeley, California, to duplicate panels exactly, so that she had enough to complete the walls of the library lobby. The library itself is a collection of first editions and rare old books. The library has views south, west, and north through windows of modest size, designed to retain the old world charm of the otherwise dimly lit room. Along the top of book cabinetry, a venerable collection of ceramics dating back to a couple of hundred years BC are on display. Morgan had these anchored by wire for stabilty agains seismic forces, but the wires removed and replaced with special tacky medium used by museums for this purpose. However, during a quake, a prominent clear white alabaster urn on a center table tumbled and cracked. It has since been restored and replaced to the table on which Hearst had place it. Again, note the extraordinary ceiling of this room, as well as the large hand woven oriental rug on the floor.
Hearst was a smoker as was nearly every movie star in those days, and he also drank a good lot. He was not the type of culinary expert we would expect by today's standards, but was certainly a good eater. Ashtrays were available in all rooms, something that must have been a concern to museum curators when the castle was donated to the state, but food and drink had to be centrally located because in those days, refrigeration had not yet become a standard in the average kitchen. Thus, the kitchen has state of the art refrigerators for the 1930's, a surprisingly small medicine cabinet (to cure those handovers), and a grand assembly of stoves and other kitchen equipment. The stoves were heated by burning oil, and because they didn't have a thermostate, the professional cooks hired by Hearst really had to know what to do. The cooking staff included pastry chefs, and the staff had their own dining and employee quarters on the eastern edge of the south wing. I don't know where they lived though. In any case, the kitchen was set up so that guest could come day or night and get something to eat and drink. There was beer on tap always, but apparently Hearst kept more restrictions on wine and spirits, due to his girlfriend's tendency to be an alcoholic.
Casa del Monte, House of the Mountains, was named for the beautiful view of the mountains that guests had from their rooms. This was the smallest of the three guesthouses with only 4 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms. We visited the interior of this guesthouse on tour #3.
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