Memories of Hearst Castle
Last updated 12/28/2022 at 6:31pm
Special to the Village News
I will never forget my first visit to Hearst Castle. I was about four, and it was before the estate was open to the public. My Grandma Mary Bristol and I had driven up to the castle with Peggy Brunner, her closest friend, who worked for the Hearst family.
Peggy parked at the base of the wide, steep, main steps of the castle. When I got out of the car, I was mesmerized by the vast expanse of stairs that seemed to go on forever. Those seemingly eternal stairs are still a vivid memory.
We parked at the main steps a few times before the Hearst/State transition. I remember walking up the steps to the courtyard, but no further. A marble pond in the courtyard of the main structure, La Casa Grande, resembled a four-leaf clover. Perched on the side of the pond was a small wooden ramp. William Randolph Hearst had the ramp installed in case his dog fell in the water. Mr. Hearst’s kind gesture made quite an impact on me.
William Randolph Hearst was the visionary, and an architect named Julia Morgan brought that vision to life. Work on La Cuesta Encantada, (The Enchanted Hill), began in 1919.
In 1958, the castle was gifted to the State of California by the Hearst Corporation. After that transition, we would sometimes take public tours. I tried to stay as close to the guides as possible so I wouldn’t miss anything. That is, until we toured the golden and glowing Celestial Suite, where I always wanted to linger. My mother had quite a time trying to convince me it was time to leave that magical room!
My grandparents’ home was perched on a hillside in Cambria, not far from San Simeon. I remember my grandfather lifting me up so I could view the castle through his telescope. When the morning fog drifted in, the castle disappeared. In the afternoon, the fog dissipated, and the castle returned – like a sprite. In my young mind, the castle really was enchanted.
Peggy Brunner, who worked for the Hearsts as curator of the Hearst Warehouses, lived in a Spanish-style stucco home designed by Julia Morgan. The home was adjacent to the warehouses where the Hearst family kept excess artwork, artifacts, and architectural items. Peggy retired in 1971, but not before I enjoyed some unique experiences at the castle, and the warehouses.
Touring the Hearst Castle was an intense sensory experience. Each time I visited the castle, I basked in the exquisite beauty of stunning ceilings, marbled floors, tapestries, and a plethora of art work. I would look very long and hard at each object that interested me, in hopes that the image would be captured in my mind forever.
I first visited the magnificent Roman Pool as a six-year-old, and it made such an impression on me that it haunted my day dreams. I would dream of taking a swim in the enchanting little cove where subdued light softly illuminated the gold and cobalt blue tiles. I envisioned grabbing hold of the swirled marble hand holds, then stepping into the glassy water. However, as many times as I have visited the Roman Pool, I have never seen the surface disturbed. Not even a ripple of movement.
The warehouses were just as fascinating as the castle itself. When I was older, Peggy took me on walks through the vast warehouses. We wandered the isles to view the many treasures – everything from shelf paper to entire buildings shipped from Europe. Each block and stone that would eventually form a building, was numbered. Peggy said that numbering was the only way to reassemble the buildings. This fascinated me, and I thought that fitting them together would be like working a giant jigsaw puzzle.
When I was fifteen, and touring the warehouses with Peggy, a small roll of French shelf paper caught my eye. It pictured a procession of maidens carrying baskets of red roses. I decided I needed to take that roll home with me. I don’t remember the cost, but it was affordable for a 15-year-old. I lined the drawers of my mother's dresser with my new found treasure. Fifty-four years later, the paper is still pristine – safe under blouses and sweaters.
The warehouses, which are empty now, were still filled with artifacts during my last visit in 1970. I was sixteen when Peggy showed me an extremely heavy, faded red bedspread. She said it was an antique, collected in Europe. The bedspread was displayed nicely, looped over a large wooden stand so it wouldn’t touch the floor. I asked Peggy how much it was, thinking that maybe I could afford it with my babysitting money. When she told me that it was $2,000, I was shocked. That was as much as a Ford Maverick!
In 1962, when I was nine, my mother’s brother, William I. Bristol, and his son, Bill, had a remarkable castle experience. The two men worked hard to repair the Carillon Bells in the towers of La Casa Grande, which had been silent for 25 years. At no cost to the estate, my uncle and cousin were able to get 31 of 32 bells to ring once again. The men accessed the bells by climbing wooden ladders perched against the tower walls! I don’t know which impressed me more – repairing the bells or climbing the ladders.
When I was a student at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, I enrolled in a Hearst Castle class taught by Woody Yost, who was a fount of information. Following him around the castle during our private lecture tour was an unforgettable experience. It was such a thrill to view rooms in the castle that were not open to the public.
I now think of the Hearst Castle every day. Why? My mother was given some Hearst Castle art objects by my grandmother. Among the items are a monogrammed silver pencil holder and four silver napkin rings. One napkin ring is inscribed “GH,” and belonged to George Hearst, William Randolph Hearst’s father.
The opulent La Cuesta Encantada is a place to delight in the glory of past civilizations and bygone eras. I remain in awe of its many treasures, and in awe of the dream of one man – William Randolph Hearst.