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Hearst and Morgan in California (Feb 11, 2004)

The year its destiny was altered forever, 1919, Camp Hill — part of the old Mexican land grant bought by William Randolph Hearst's father, George, in 1865 — was just one more surge in the Santa Lucia coastal range, empty and windswept, spotted with manzanita, oak and greasewood. By 1947, the year Hearst and Marion Davies finally left, La Cuestra Encantada, the Enchanted Hill, had become the most singular individual exploit of domestic architecture in the country. Amid the hostile passions Hearst provoked while he was alive and shadowed by the doppelgänger of Welles's Xanadu, the Enchanted Hill was long seen as an outcrop of California kitsch, Camp Gothick on Camp Hill, vulgarity on a titanic scale. Now, amid shifting tastes, Hearst's castle can be seen for what it is — as powerful an expression of the American soul as the Brooklyn Bridge, Rockefeller Center or the Ford plant on the Rouge River, and all the more striking because the dream was given concrete form by one indomitable woman, Julia Morgan. 

Morgan was, along with his mother, Phoebe, and Marion Davies, one of the most important women in Hearst's life. When the Enchanted Hill became the property of the state of California and was opened to the public on June 2, 1958, plaques at the foot and top of the hill mentioned both Hearst and his mother; Morgan was ignored. Of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who pour through the castle each year, only a fraction can know her name, yet if La Cuestra Encantada is the story of a dream arduously achieved, it was Morgan rather than Hearst who prevailed over the more formidable odds. 

She wanted to be an architect when the profession was unheard-of for a woman and when architecture was not even an official part of the curriculum of the University of California at Berkeley. One of the first women there to graduate in engineering, Morgan went on to storm the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She was the first woman in the world to study architecture at the Ecole, and four years later won her certificate. By 1904 she had opened her own architectural practice, and by sheer force of personality commanded the respect of the clients, draftsmen, contractors and artisans with whom she had to deal. 

Morgan died six years after Hearst, at the age of 85, and although their joint endeavor at San Simeon will be the work for which she will be most famously remembered, it was only a fraction of her output; by the time she closed her office in 1951 it amounted to almost eight hundred projects, mostly in the Bay Area — many of them unrecorded, since she commanded her files be burned upon her death. It is hard to imagine another person surviving such a partnership with Hearst. And if Morgan and Hearst were right for each other, the time and place were propitious for both. They were both nourished by that fortunate constellation of architects who began work in San Francisco in the 1890s and who, out of an academic and eclectic tradition, helped create a regional style and distinctive cultural disposition. 

Of these, the most influential on the life of Julia Morgan was Bernard Maybeck. Son of a profoundly idealistic German cabinetmaker, he had studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the early 1880s before returning to the United States. It was Maybeck who urged upon Julia the importance of studying at the Beaux-Arts, Maybeck who encouraged her through all the obstacles thrown against this plan and finally Maybeck who introduced her to the Hearst family. 

In 1895 Phoebe Apperson Hearst, as diminutive as Julia and equally as determined, approached Martin Kellogg, the president of the University of California, Berkeley, and discussed the prospects of a memorial building for her husband, George. Mrs. Hearst was already a lavish philanthropic donor to education, and Kellogg made haste to introduce her to Maybeck. It was not long before Phoebe had approved his design for a memorial building and responded alertly to his enthusiastic introduction of Morgan. Hardly had Maybeck done so than Phoebe was offering her financial assistance. Although the financial help was declined, Phoebe Hearst's patronage was helpful to Morgan as she began her career as an architect. The late Sara Holmes Boutelle, author of the definitive life of Morgan, traced the influential network of California women who gained for Morgan the commissions that helped establish her reputation; they range from Mills College campus, through the YWCA headquarters at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, to other YWCAs as far afield as Hawai’i, to the scores of private houses and club buildings around Berkeley and San Francisco. 

No less effective than her patronage of Morgan, through the ownership of two houses, was Phoebe's influence on the architectural ambitions of her son. From Maybeck she commissioned in 1902 the country estate of Wyntoon, set amid the Siskiyou forests of northeast California on the McCloud River. Drawing on his own predilections and also his Beaux-Arts grounding in expressive form and appropriate materials, Maybeck realized a Gothic dream, which he lyrically described in 1904 in The Architectural Review: 

Imagine the clear…foam of the river in the foreground roaring ceaselessly, and…at the dawn of day, an enchanted castle.… The dark height of the room, the unobstructed archways…the tapestries, the little flicker of the fire…and you satiated, tired, and inspired by the day's trip among…aged pines, rocks, cascades, great trunks of trees fallen years ago, — a disheveled harmony — here you can reach all that is within you. 

In Alameda County, 250 miles south of Wyntoon, lay another property belonging to Mrs. Hearst on which, in 1895, her son decided to raise an edifice "totally different in every way from the ordinary country home." He commissioned A.C. Schweinfurth — along with Maybeck, Willis Polk and Ernest Coxhead, one of the Bay Area's innovative architects — to build the resoundingly named Hacienda del Pozo de Verona, described by the architect as "provincial Spanish Renaissance”. Hearst thought of everything except the elementary task of informing his mother that he was making his first foray into architectural eclecticism on her land. Phoebe was in Europe when she was apprised of this surreptitious endeavor. She hastened west and expropriated the expropriator. Desiring to make the Hacienda into a home for herself, she commissioned Morgan to remodel it. 

Here, in 1902, as her mentor Maybeck labored on Wyntoon, Julia Morgan met William Randolph Hearst for the first time, thus rounding out the encounter of persons and of architectural ambitions that would engender San Simeon. Seventeen years later, within weeks of the death of the mother he adored, Hearst was urging Morgan toward a grandiose fusion of the spirit of the Hacienda and of Wyntoon. Even as his relationship with one determined woman was severed, his association with another truly began, with a torrent of telegrams and letters from Hearst to Morgan, which persisted throughout their relationship and to which she assiduously responded down the years. They agreed fairly quickly about the basic plan for La Cuestra Encantada: the Casa Grande or "ranch house", as Hearst rather affectedly called it, fronted on the Pacific side of the hill by the smaller Italianate villas — Casa del Mar, Casa del Monte and Casa del Sol. On October 25, from his newspaper offices in New York, Hearst wrote Morgan: 

In plan A the sitting room ran parallel with the front line. I have made it run perpendicular…and have partially shut off the sides of the old sitting room with bookcases about 4' in height. 

This detailed flow continued from wherever Hearst found himself. A month later he wrote: 

Dear Miss Morgan, 

I have just bought a very stunning tapestry screen or panel, 9' 4" high and 13' 6" wide. It occurs to me that this might be placed at the north side of the sitting room in my little house (Casa del Mar) where we now have the fireplace.… In that case we could put fireplaces at the east and west ends of the library recesses, where we now have windows. I had suggested putting bookcases there. 

Nor was Hearst's desire to tamper and to change quelled when plans had been rendered as architecture. Time and again fireplaces were ripped out, relocated, then ripped out again and put back where they started. Morgan later said that demolition formed a good part of the project. 

By December 1919, Hearst was holding forth in two long letters written on the thirtieth and thirty-first about the Spanish Baroque and urging Morgan to see Allan Dwan's film Soldiers of Fortune, which had some scenes set in the San Diego Panama-California International Exposition in 1915: "I understand the San Diego expo stuff is largely repros from Mexico and Latin America." Then, after ruminating that the Mission style of California was too "primitive" and that of Mexico "so elaborate as to be objectionable", Hearst pondered: "The alternative is to build…in the Renaissance style of southern Spain. We picked out the tower of the church of Ronda.… The Renaissance of North Spain seems to me very hard, while the Renaissance of southern Spain is much softer, more graceful." 

But who was leading whom? A week later Morgan was edging Hearst away from the Churrigueresque effects associated with Hearst’s preference: 

“I question whether this style of decoration would not seem too heavy and too clumsy on our buildings.… We have a comparatively small group and it would seem to me that they should charm by their detail rather than overwhelm by more or less clumsy exuberance.… I believe we could get something really beautiful by using the combination of the Ronda Tower and the Seville doorway with your Virgin over it and San Simeon and San Christopher on either side.” 

Day after day, month after month, the work crept forward. The bungalows were completed by 1922, the central section of Casa Grande by 1927. Never fewer than twenty-five men, and often five times that number, toiled on the Hill. During the Depression it was the largest private construction project in California. Hearst's agents fanned across Europe, shock troops in the service of his rabid collecting. Most assiduous were Arthur and Mildred Staplay Bynes, expert at skills of conjuring whole suites from Iberian palaces and maneuvering them past Spanish custom officials. Not once but twice the couple, over roars of outrage from Spanish villagers, managed to deconstruct whole cloisters stone by stone and shipped them to the States, where one still lies in a rude tumble of rocks. 

Year after year, never letting the rest of her practice decline for a moment, Julia Morgan pushed the enterprise along. Designs for everything — from the Hill's water supply to the five-mile drive (both major engineering undertakings) to the tilework — flowed from her drafting table. With the contractors she organized argosies of small ships carrying building supplies from San Francisco to San Simeon. Three out of four weekends she would step into a sleeping berth on the San Francisco-Los Angeles express and work at her drawing board until three in the morning, when she disembarked at San Luis Obispo. Then Steve Zegar, the local taxi driver, would take her through the dawn for a few hours north to San Simeon. Saturday and Sunday she would work with Hearst when he was there or with the superintendent of construction and the master craftsmen on the site. Many of them — Ed Trinkeller the ironworker, Camille Solon the muralist, Jules Suppo the woodcarver — devoted much of their working lives to the project. On Sunday evening Zegar would drive her back down to San Luis Obispo, and she would get back on the midnight train to San Francisco and be in her office in the Merchants Exchange on Monday morning. According to Sara Holmes Boutelle, Morgan's invoices show that between 1919 and 1942 she made that journey 518 times. In a practice almost unheard of at the time, she divided profits among her staff and kept only a small percentage for herself. She had little money when she died, and as for her funeral, she had asked to be "tucked away without any fuss”. She lived entirely for her work, never married, and seems to have developed no significant personal attachments. She worked up to sixteen hours a day, often seven days a week. A mastoidectomy in the mid-1920s impaired balance, but this never prevented her from clambering up and down scaffolding, often sustained for days by nothing more than Hershey bars. 

And Hearst? As San Simeon grew toward the sky, he was also building the Beach House for Marion Davies in Santa Monica, acquiring St. Donats in Wales, buying a Long Island mansion for his wife, expanding Wyntoon, running his repellent empire stealthily toward near-ruin, which in 1937 finally halted construction on the Enchanted Hill as salvage work on Hearst's affairs began. He was 74 by that time and the rituals of life at the ranch were firmly prescribed. P.G. Wodehouse sent an entertaining description to his friend Bill Townend in 1931: 

“The ranch — ranch, my foot; it's a castle… Hearst collects everything, including animals, and has a zoo on the premises, and the specimens considered reasonably harmless are allowed to roam at large. You are apt to meet a bear or two before you get to the house, or an elephant, or even Sam Goldwyn. There are always at least fifty guests staying here.… The train that takes guests away leaves after midnight, and the one that brings new guests arrives early in the morning, so you have dinner with one lot of people and come down to breakfast next morning and find an entirely fresh crowd.… Meals take place in an enormous room…served at a long table, with Hearst sitting in the middle on one side and Marion Davies in the middle on the other. The longer you're there, the further you get from the middle. I sat on Marion's right the first night, and then found myself getting edged further and further away, till I got to the extreme end, when I thought it time to leave. Another day and I should have been feeding on the floor. You don't see Hearst till dinnertime.… He's a sinister old devil, not at all the sort I'd care to meet down a lonely alley on a dark night.” 

Dinner, the only compulsory event of the day, would come at nine and then at eleven a film in the private chamber. Guests detected bringing alcohol onto the premises could find their bags packed the following morning, though Marion Davies was known to slip empty bottles of gin behind the commodes in her bedroom. 

It was a strange experience to drive for an hour north along the Pacific shoreline, then climb 1,500 feet up the five-mile drive and find oneself in a refectory with a ceiling from a sixteenth-century monastery munching broiled honeycomb tripe (served, for example, for lunch on December 31, 1946) beneath the banners of Siena. Everywhere, in every room, a profusion of objects from almost every century and style. Volume one of the inventory of antiques on the Hill and in the warehouses below in San Simeon runs to 6,776 items, and here one can see precisely the prices, far from reckless in many cases, that Hearst or his agents had paid. High up in the Celestial Suite, an architectural afterthought on top of the towers, there are two Geromes of Napoleon in Egypt, and one can see from the inventory that Hearst bought one from Knoedler in 1898 for $900 and the other for the same price from the same gallery fifteen years later. Although his frenzied collecting may have skewed the art prices of two continents, the most Hearst paid for anything on the Hill was $100,000 for a tapestry. For the whole of San Simeon, Hearst paid about $8 million. More than once Morgan, superintending the payroll at the site, complained that they were two months behind. She finally announced that she would yield to another architect to continue the project and by the mid-1920s Hearst forced himself to organize a regular system of transfers. 

How does the Hill strike a visitor now? As Thomas R. Aidala points out in an admirable monograph, the experience of the main house is "hermetic and episodic", in that there is little sense of flow between the rooms on the main floor and even less sense of connection between the various floors. 

Both Hearst and Morgan stated on more than one occasion that what they were really building was a museum of architecture of which Hearst was only an interim tenant. What gives the museum its emotional strength, rounding out the Gothic and Renaissance themes of the various casas, is the Neptune Pool on which construction commenced in 1927 after Gertrude Ederle, the cross-channel swimmer who happened to be staying at the Castle, remarked that the previous one was too small. The Neptune Pool, with its green and white Vermont marble, Italian temple facade, Classical colonnade and Italian cypresses, subtly redefines the character of the Hill from obsession to dream, from the weight and religious frenzy of the Gothic and Spanish Baroque to the tranquil reason of antiquity. The pool and the five levels of terracing, the landscaped hills nearby on which Hearst's men planted over 6,000 trees, the wild beasts roaming, the mile of pergola ("the longest in captivity") embrace the Casa Grande as orders of nature soothing the orders of architecture massed on the Hill's crest. 

Hearst would work through the night in his private office behind the third-floor Gothic study, reading his newspapers sent to San Simeon from all quarters of his empire. The wall of this office was largely glass, and the sun, which rose from behind the Santa Lucia Mountains, had earlier lit his properties across the continent, leaving this one till last. Behind him lay only the Pacific. San Simeon must have seemed to him to be the final résumé: the triumph of the New World, expressed as a triumph of art and architecture imported from the Old, down the centuries from the Athens of Phidias and Pericles. 

2 Comments

  1. Jim April 27, 2021

    “… and by the mid-1820s Hearst forced himself to organize a regular system of transfers.”

    Perhaps the author intended to to write the ‘mid-1920s’ rather than 1820s?

    • AVA News Service April 27, 2021

      Right you are. Thanks, Jim.

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