Icons / November 2016

Home Is Where the Hearst Is: San Simeon Castle

William Randolph Hearst may be a household name, but his household is somewhat as impressive, nothing less than a lavish palace in the hills of California.
Hearst Castle, California. Photo by Design Pics Inc/REX/Shutterstock.

It wasn’t enough that his castle would be a monument to grandeur that tipped over into exuberant excess. Even the building of the castle was fraught with wastage. Builders would slave away for weeks creating some part of the structure, only for the visionary - or crazy - paying for it to decide on a whim that it wasn’t right and insist it was torn down. One fireplace was ripped out, repositioned, then a few months later put back in the original position. And there were many fireplaces: 41 in all. This castle covered some 80,200 square foot of living space. It had 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, two pools, a movie theatre, tennis courts, an airfield and the world’s largest private zoo - with 300 different species - and was all 1600 feet up atop a hill. Such was the gargantuan nature of the project that completion ran a mere 27 years over schedule.

But then the visionary behind this castle was no ordinary man - he could indulge his excesses. William Randolph Hearst - the larger-than-life inspiration for Orson Welles’ larger-than-life Citizen Kane - died 65 years ago this year after a lifetime of getting exactly what he wanted, and getting it now. There was a good reason why he came to be known as The Chief. “I would like to build something up on the hill,” Hearst had once said of his castle. “I get tired of going up there and camping in tents. I’m getting a little old for that. I’d like to get something that would be more comfortable.” He wasn’t kidding.

Such was Hearst’s impatience that everything in the castle’s 127 acre grounds, including 1000 rose bushes, was planted fully grown. The flower beds were ripped up and replanted not annually, with the seasons, but four times a year. Indeed, construction on the castle would begin in 1919, the very year Hearst inherited $19m ($272m in today’s money), together with 130 square miles of Californian coastal ranch land of almost immeasurable real estate value.

Yet while the castle would go on to be filled with art works of a standard only otherwise seen in national museums - ancient statuary, Flemish tapestries, Old Masters - Hearst’s spending was not altogether hedonistic. Within months of coming into the money - money accrued through his father’s publishing empire - Hearst himself had bought 28 newspaper companies and 18 magazines. His running of these would in time see one in four Americans daily reading one or other of his papers and his wealth increase ten-fold. That would only allow the spending to continue.

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Josh Sims

Josh Sims is a writer on menswear, design and much else for the likes of Wallpaper, CNN, Robb Report and The Times. He's the author of several books on menswear, the latest 'The Details', published by Laurence King. He lives in London, has two small children and is permanently exhausted.