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Alexander Cockburn co-edits the newsletter CounterPunch.

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Ranch, my foot; it's a castle

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 – 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 was the first woman in the world to study architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and four years later won her certificate. By 1950 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.

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. He had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in the early 1880s before returning to the United States. It was Maybeck who introduced Julia to the Hearst family.

Phoebe Apperson Hearst's patronage was helpful to Morgan as she began her career as an architect. And no less effective than Phoebe's patronage of Morgan, through the ownership of two houses, was her influence on the architectural ambitions of her son.
In Alameda County, 250 miles south of Wyntoon, Phoebe's county estate realized by Maybeck, 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 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 endeavour. 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, 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 30th and 31st 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, experts at skills of conjuring whole suites from Iberian palaces and manoeuvring 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. 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. Donat's 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 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. 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.

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 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.

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.

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