Works of art come in all sizes. During the years between the Renaissance and the 1850s, some of the most prized possessions in the art world were tiny painted minature portraits, often small enough to be enclosed in a gold locket, yet so precise as to have seemingly been painted under a microscope. By the same token, the world is full of works of art created on a gigantic scale. We call it architecture. And since we all abide in some form of it for most of our lives, we seem to have a special attachment to domestic architecture, whether of the Levitt variety, or something closer to Hadrian's Villa. And the architectural artists and artisans behind such works are often seen as the greatest creative forces on earth. The unrealized fallacy in this perception is that very often the architects and master builders are NOT the creative genius behind such works at all, but merely the means to an end. There is no creative force on earth more powerful than a man with more time and money and imagination than he knows what to do with.
One such man was born in 1863 to George and Phoebe Hearst shortly after they moved from New York to California. George had been there before, one of the original '49ers, and made a modest fortune digging gold. Their son was named William Randolph. He grew up in the lap of luxury, touring Europe with his mother at the age of ten, where he exhibited an ebullient interest in art, collecting it, getting in trouble, and spending money. As he grew up and took over the reins of his father's fortune, he also exhibited a talent for MAKING it as well. A mining empire grew into one of California real estate, publishing, entertainment, and a mania for building things. And his great work of art he called San Simeon.
It started out small. A few tents atop the highest hill on his father's San Luis Obispo ranch where he been taken camping as a boy. As he took his own sons (and later half of Hollywood) camping there, the excursions grew to sizable safaris. Then began a series of three guest houses, each large enough to comfortable house any ordinary millionaire of the time. And finally, Casa Grande, half church, half museum-- the "big house" bearing Spanish mission style architecture merged with an eclectic mixture of Baroque, Moorish, Gothic, Roman, and Hollywood influences. And although construction pretty much stopped during the mid-1930s, the house never was completed so long as William Randolph Hearst was alive.
Hearst's architect was a woman--Julia Morgan. Morgan was the first licensed female architect in the state of California. She and her sizable atelier had done work for Hearst's mother for some fifteen years before work on San Simeon commenced. She was small of build, shy to the point of invisibility, and favored silk blouses worn with, what we could call today, pantsuits. Yet she was as adept at climbing ladders and supervising construction as she was at designing from her client's vivid imagination. Combined with this she had an iron will, a sharp eye for detail, a workaholic lifestyle, and a mania for quality construction. She and Hearst were MADE for each other.
But nothing at San Simeon was ever built to plan. Walls went up, walls came down, whole stories were added at the master's whim. The magnificent Roman style Neptune pool was DOUBLED in size to hold 345,000 gallons of water shortly after Hearst took his first dip in it. There was an enormous INDOOR pool as well. Hadrian would have been green with envy. Whole trees were moved--one giant oak at the cost of $40,000. The place was as much a museum as a castle, though Hearst never liked that term. He preferred to call it "the ranch." Packing crates bearing art and artifacts from Europe often lined the driveway for half a mile, and in fact, leftover wood from these crates was utilized in the construction of the servants quarters. At various times during the thirty years the place was being built, anywhere from 25 to 150 workers contributed their expertise to a complex that eventually grew to more than a dozen structures.
No one knew or WANTED to know the cost, though at one point, construction costs and Hearst's lifestyle was eating up his fortune at the rate of $15-million per year. And Julia Morgan guided it all, rolled with the punches, and shaped Hearst's megalomania into a work of art. Yet while San Simeon may have been the most visually extravagant piece of domestic architecture of its time, ironically it was not all that unusual. It was neither the largest, most expensive, nor the most lavishly decorated house of the "gilded era." But it was the last.