William Randolf Hearst is known as the newspaper tycoon who was one of the founders of sensational journalism that was the early predecessor of modern “click bait” titles. Hearst built on his father’s mining fortune with newspapers, films, a tour in Congress, and his corporation is still alive and well today (holdings include just about any magazine you can find at the airport: Cosmopolitan, Popular Mechanics, Women’s Day, Town & Country Magazine, House Beautiful, etc.).
With all his wealth, Hearst took a remote piece of land in Central California and put a European-Renaissance inspired castle on it.
The Castle is now owned by the State of California and run by the Park Service who offer tours throughout the house and grounds. Tours of the Grand Rooms cost $25/adults and $12 for children 5-12.
The tour includes a movie which touches on Hearst’s inspiration for the castle as well as some insights into the parties he hosted. He was certainly well connected in his day, and hosted many stars and starlets including Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Cary Grant, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and Bob Hope.
The actual tour departs by bus from the visitor center and winds 5 miles up the mountain with commentary on the use of the grounds then and now. During the height of his fortune, Hearst kept the largest private zoo in the country including polar bears, a herd of zebra, and tigers. They told us that sometimes you can still see the ancestors of the zebra roaming the fields with the cattle.
The castle itself was modeled after an old European town where the cathedral would be in the center at the top of the hill with a square in front and the village surrounding. The grand house certainly looks like a cathedral and the cottages make up the village around the square. I was expecting the whole thing to be rather gaudy and derivative, but it was really lovely.
One of the highlights of the tour is supposed to be the outdoor Neptune pool, but it was unfortunately closed for renovations. Apparently the descendants of Hearst still have privileges and can swim in it after hours, so I am going to have to make a point to get invited to one of those parties! (I will also settle for a swim in the indoor pool, if any Hearst relations are reading this!)
The tour of the rooms was well done and informative, with several very interesting tidbits about the construction of the castle, quirks of the owner, and the parties hosted. Hearst filled his home with hundreds of antiques dating back to antiquity and my favorite story was that he obtained beautiful wooden panels for the ceiling in the sitting room and replicas were created to fill in the space as needed. Well 50 years later the originals are being cleaned as part of a preservation effort and as the dirt is removed they are found to be an entirely different color from the replicas. They have to finish the cleaning process because the dirt is beginning to affect the paint, but when they are finished they will no longer match the replica pieces, which will always appear dirty and smoky!
Now the view from the castle is supposed to be a phenomenal panorama of the ocean, but we couldn’t see beans through all the fog. The towering 70 foot palms that Hearst had transplanted here were very impressive, but we couldn’t see beyond them at all. If you are in the area for a couple days, it would be worth waiting for a sunny day to ensure you get the view, but it’s still a nice visit in the fog and I wouldn’t be opposed to going back, they have a couple different options for tours to try out.