California’s Most Famous House Was a Battle With Owner’s Shopping Addiction

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Panoramic Images/Alamy Stock Photo
Panoramic Images/Alamy Stock Photo

One trial for Julia Morgan involved having to contend with William Randolph Hearst’s rapidly accumulating purchases, as Julia’s longtime employee Walter Steilberg explained: “Miss Morgan had to deal not only with the visible client across the table from her, but also these other clients who were peddling antiques to Mr. Hearst from all over the world.” A lifelong art collector with widely eclectic interests, W.R. described himself as “like a dipsomaniac [drunkard] with a bottle.” When art dealers showed him things, he had to buy, and his timing was opportune.

In 1909, American export duties were lifted on art that was more than a century old. What began as a trickle of fine objects leaving Europe became a flood after 1918, when war-torn countries needed funds to rebuild, and long-held British fortunes were devoured by inheritance taxes. W.R. haunted New York’s art galleries and auction houses, maintaining the same high level of involvement in every art-buying decision that he displayed in every building decision. His possessions fitted so seamlessly into San Simeon’s architecture that it is easy to assume he had purchased everything prior to construction. In fact, he owned less than 5 percent of the hilltop’s approximately twenty thousand objects before 1919. Julia incorporated Hearst’s expanding collections into her constantly evolving design, while simultaneously maintaining the estate’s atmosphere of symmetry and balance. Her Beaux-Arts training proved the perfect preparation for this difficult endeavor.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>The ornate indoor Roman Pool at Hearst Castle.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Carol M. Highsmith</div>

The ornate indoor Roman Pool at Hearst Castle.

Carol M. Highsmith

Unlike most prominent American art collectors—including financier J.P. Morgan and industrialist Henry Clay Frick—W.R. specialized in the decorative arts (furniture, metalwork, pottery, and textiles) rather than concentrating on the fine arts of painting and sculpture. Hearst’s collections ranged widely in quality as well as in age, origin, and category, since he bought whatever appealed to him. He was particularly interested in antique ceilings, buying dozens of Spanish examples from the American art dealer Arthur Byne. Julia had known Arthur’s wife, Mildred, during her years in Paris, and her letters to the Bynes (who became permanent residents of Spain) were remarkable for the frankness with which she expressed her opinions. Julia clearly felt that W.R. was on the losing side in many of his transactions: “I think you will find you will have a very appreciative and interested client. He has been so thoroughly the victim of some of his dealers that he will, on his side, greatly appreciate real knowledge and fair treatment.”

Julia provided the Bynes with a candid description of San Simeon:

“We are building for him a sort of village on a mountain-top, miles from any railway, and housing . . . his collections as well as his family. Having different buildings allows the use of varied treatments. . . . So far we have received from him, to incorporate in the new buildings, some twelve or thirteen [train] carloads of antiques, brought from the ends of the earth and from Prehistoric down to late Empire in period, the majority however, being of Spanish origin. They comprise vast quantities of tables, beds, armoires, secretaries, all kinds of cabinets, church statuary, columns, door frames, carved doors in all states of repair and disrepair, overaltars, reliquaries, lanterns, iron grille doors, window grilles, votive candlesticks, torcheres, all kinds of chairs in quantity, six or seven well heads. . . . I don’t see myself where we are ever going to use half suitably, but I find that the idea is to try things out and if they are not satisfactory, discard them for the next thing that comes that promises better. There is interest and charm coming gradually into play.”

On another occasion she sent them a similarly lengthy list of diverse objects, all located in the Assembly Room (Casa Grande’s largest sitting room, with dimensions of 83 by 31 feet), and staunchly concluded, “Now, I know it sounds frightful, but it is not!

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Julia Morgan, architect discussing plans with Hearst at San Simeon in 1926.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Chronicle Books</div>

Julia Morgan, architect discussing plans with Hearst at San Simeon in 1926.

Chronicle Books

Julia was San Simeon’s sole interior decorator, a responsibility she preferred to keep for herself. Walter recalled, “She had a horror of decorators coming in and spoiling a house...” Hearst’s most recent acquisitions were sent to the four warehouses they built along the coast, where staff members photographed each item and noted its dimensions. After examining these photos and corresponding with Hearst, Julia incorporated the selected article into her design scheme, even though the object was seldom the proper size. She wrote to W.R. about his third-floor bedroom suite: “The Gothic Sitting Room ceiling is in and Gyorgy [a woodcarver] is finishing it. . . . It took some real good nature on the part of the ‘wormers’ [craftsmen who were antiquing the modern portions] to match up new with old work.” Sometimes this complicated process of amalgamation surprised even Julia, who confessed to the Bynes: “I have developed an absorptive capacity that seems ungodly when I stop to reflect.”

It is possible to glimpse Julia at work on the hilltop because she uncharacteristically consented to appear in a home movie that Hearst shot in 1921. Titled The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughters: A Romance of the Ranchos, it was a silent melodrama that W.R. wrote, directed, and starred in—as John Jenkins, the dashing hero—with his wife, Millicent, costarring as his damsel in distress. In Julia’s scene, she stands with them both in front of Casa del Sol—the center cottage, clearly under construction—and unrolls a drawing that they peruse. She is smiling and relaxed, wearing what might be a calla lily tucked into her hatband. W.R. penned this affectionate title card to explain Julia’s role in the story: “You now detect/The architect/With patient gaze/She views the plans/That are no man’s/Hers is the guilt/For what she built/And hers the praise.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Grand study room with attached library at Hearst Castle.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Alamy Stock Photo</div>

Grand study room with attached library at Hearst Castle.

Alamy Stock Photo

In addition to being the sole architect and interior decorator, Julia was also San Simeon’s presiding landscape architect. She and W.R. determined every aspect of the estate, including positioning the buildings, selecting the plants, and hiring the gardeners. They even had four enormous two-hundred-year-old live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) moved in order to ensure that the trees were located in the most picturesque spots. This unprecedented effort involved encasing each tree’s massive root system inside a huge concrete basin, which they were then able to move with winches. All four trees survived their relocation. W.R. and Julia both revered these majestic native oaks. When a grass fire threatened the buildings, his first telegram to her read, “Think fire very serious; would rather have building burn than trees.” Their other priority was showcasing the hilltop’s unparalleled vistas, which stretched for more than 100 miles in nearly all directions. W.R. declared at the beginning of construction: “The main thing at the ranch is the view.” Creating spacious patios on the precipitous slopes was difficult, as Julia explained to the Bynes: “. . . all garden work is on steep hillsides, requiring endless steps and terracing.”

Julia had largely completed the initial garden design in 1922, when she suggested that W.R. should hire the Bay Area artist Bruce Porter as a landscape consultant. He was a polymath who had designed the stained-glass windows for San Francisco’s Swedenborgian Church and the gardens at Filoli, William Bowers Bourn II’s bucolic Woodside estate 30 miles south of San Francisco. When Porter visited San Simeon in 1922, he was dazzled by its scope and beauty. Julia revealed: “Am just back from San Simeon with Mr. Porter—that is, what is left of him. . . . As [I] thought probable, he grasped the place as a whole and from the painter—as well as planter—viewpoint.” Porter produced an enthusiastic report early in 1923, writing: “Even now, with but three of the buildings completed—they strangely magnify themselves into the bulk and importance of a city.” W.R. was delighted with Porter’s observations: “Very wonderfully good report many artists could have spent a lifetime on the property and not have made as good a one.” Porter’s summary also mentioned a location below the cottages where W.R. and Julia had already decided to build a water feature. Hearst noted in the margin: “This should be a very romantic spot, a place for young lovers—and maybe old ones.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>On this drawing—one of 10,000 created for San Simeon—Julia and W.R. Hearst discussed the proper siting of the three cottages that encircle twin-towered Casa Grande.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Chronicle Books</div>

On this drawing—one of 10,000 created for San Simeon—Julia and W.R. Hearst discussed the proper siting of the three cottages that encircle twin-towered Casa Grande.

Chronicle Books

It proved a prophetic description, because on this site Julia eventually designed the unforgettable Neptune Pool. It features a classical temple façade, made from six ancient Roman columns that support a seventeenth-century statue of the site’s namesake, Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. The pool’s 104-foot-long oval basin—located in front of the temple—is 3 to 10 feet deep. It holds 345,000 gallons of shimmering water, filtered and heated for year-round use. No evidence exists to prove that Julia even knew how to swim, but she brilliantly understood how to transform a utilitarian swimming pool into a stunning garden feature.

Built over fourteen years, in three different versions, the Neptune Pool provides one of the best examples of Julia’s ability to blend disparate elements into a seamless whole.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p><strong><i><a href="https://www.amazon.com/Julia-Morgan-Biography-Trailblazing-Architect/dp/1797205633" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect" class="link ">Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect</a></i><em> by Victoria Kastner</em></strong></p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Chronicle Books</div>

Hearst acquired the columns (which combine ancient and modern elements) from a Roman art gallery in 1922. Later that year, he wrote to Julia with the news that he had purchased three freestanding statues of Neptune and two sea nymphs: “This Neptune fountain though not beautiful is quaint, and although the nymphs are not over attired the dominant figure is an elderly gentleman with whiskers who lends respectability to the landscape—for those at least who don’t know his record.” They sunk these figures into concrete so they would resemble a carved relief in the temple’s pediment. W.R. also commissioned Parisian sculptor Charles-Georges Cassou to carve four marble statues of nymphs caressing swans, as well as the Birth of Venus sculpture group located in the alcove opposite the temple. By day the pool’s curved marble colonnades frame far-reaching views of the ocean and mountains; by night, they form spectacular floodlit reflections in the still water. It’s no wonder that in the 1990s the distinguished architect Charles Moore referred to the Neptune Pool as “a grand liquid ballroom, for the gods and goddesses of the silver screen.”

Excerpted with permission from Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect by Victoria Kastner, published by Chronicle Books 2022

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