Armchair Traveler: Hearst Castle

[This column originally appeared Oct. 27, 2002, which explains the presence of a couple of dated references. This summer marks 50 years since Hearst Castle was opened to the public, by the way.]

Hearst Castle: an embarrassment of riches

Midway up the California coast, there’s a celebrated dwelling, built on a hill by a famous eccentric, that today is a tourist draw and an official historic landmark.

Actually, there are two.

The lesser is Nitt Witt Ridge, a wacky, three-story house in Cambria constructed, folk art-style, from concrete, car bumpers, abalone shells, toilet seats and bottle caps.

On vacation earlier this month, I took a quick gander at the exterior of this rambling eyesore — which may have fallen down by the time you read this — before heading a few miles north to Hearst Castle.

If you aren’t familiar with Hearst Castle, it’s a cozy little hilltop cottage with 115 rooms. Originally called “the ranch,” the sprawling property has been renamed Hearst Castle for the man who financed it, William Randolph Castle.

Ha ha. I mean William Randolph Hearst, the obscenely rich newspaper publisher who was the model for Charles Foster Kane in “Citizen Kane.” (Today Hearst would probably head Enron.)

Hearst bought 250,000 acres on the coast and, in 1919, teamed up with architect Julia Morgan to build a small home atop the hill where he could get away from it all and entertain Hollywood guests.

Based on the evidence, Hearst and Morgan’s partnership went something like this:

Morgan: I thought this plateau with a 360-degree view of all you survey might be a nice spot for your little ranch.

Hearst: Sounds good to me.

Morgan: One more detail, Mr. Hearst.

Hearst: Yes?

Morgan: Would you like to super-size that?

Hearst (passionately): By God, I would!

Hearst had expected to finish in two years, but his enthusiasm, ambition and open checkbook kept the project going, and growing. By the time he died in 1951, his plan for a cottage had turned into a castle and three enormous guest homes, totaling 60,000 square feet — and never completed.

His family, who must have been horrified at what Pop had wrought, essentially gave the property to the state parks department, which opened it for public ogling.

I’d been to Hearst Castle several years before but welcomed the chance for a return trip.

At the visitors center, I started in the theater, where a movie on an IMAX-sized screen told about Hearst and his IMAX-sized castle.

It’s the inspirational story of a little boy who became a bigshot. Ending on an uplifting note, the narrator declares that Hearst had “the courage to follow his dreams.” Yes, courage — although access to a gazillion dollars may have played a part.

After the movie came the bus ride 5 miles up the hill to the estate. A docent led our group past the enormous outdoor pool, which is only slightly smaller than the Pacific Ocean, and by the Greek statuary crowding the garden.

From there, we stepped into the main house, Casa Grande, which is Spanish for “housekeeper’s nightmare.”

As I said, 115 rooms. Can you imagine cleaning 41 bathrooms? And, perhaps to prove he literally did have money to burn, Hearst’s joint has 30 fireplaces.

The place is a marvel. There are ceilings whose beams came from dismantled cathedrals. Tapestries on the walls were woven for the French royal family. Chairs date to the Renaissance.

The decor is hard to categorize, but personally, I would call it American Gaudy. Hearst Castle is like Graceland, except Hearst’s lavishly bad taste is classier than Elvis’.

But give him this: Hearst was a trailblazer in the field of disgusting opulence.

If it weren’t for Hearst’s inspiring example, would former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski have ever thought to fork out $6,000 — enough for a year’s college tuition — for a shower curtain? Would he have paid $15,000 for an umbrella stand, or $2,200 for a trash can?

So I’m of two minds about Hearst Castle. On the one hand, it’s quite an achievement, and you can’t help but wish you’d been invited there as a guest to luxuriate in the splendor.

On the other hand, you look at the extravagance and shake your head. Hearst Castle is ridiculous.

Up on his ridge, Hearst was just another nitwit.

(David Allen writes each Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, when he shares his nitwitticisms.)

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