The Art of Hearst Castle

The following is a narrative transcript from “The Art of Life with Dr. Jill Thayer,” a weekly podcast on Voice of Paso Internet radio on the California Central Coast. Programs air at :10 past the hour at 6am 9am. Research, text, and narrative content, © 2001-2018, Hearst Castle, California State Parks. All rights reserved. Narrative compilation in this podcast, © 2018, Jill Thayer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Hearst Castle, San Simeon, CA. “Aerial View.” Photo Credit: Courtesy Hearst Castle® All Rights Reserved.                                                                          

Full Program (21:19):
Part 1 (8:30):
Part 2 (11:32):
Part 3 (10:18):

I am privileged to share with you a behind-the-scenes look at the art and architecture of Hearst Castle. In this program, we’ll share insights into the collection, stories behind some of the works of art, the challenge of managing the collection, and the distinction of being a museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM).

For many of you who are among the millions who have visited Hearst Castle over the years (with attendance approximately 750,000 per year), you know the magic and wonder this National Historic Landmark holds. For those who have yet to visit, Hearst Castle can be reached from the north via Highway 101 to Paso Robles, and from the south via Cambria and/or Paso Robles. The Hearst Castle Visitor Center usually opens daily at 8:00 am. The first film of the day begins at 8:15 am and the first tour typically departs the Visitor Center for the hilltop at 9:00 am. But be sure to check in advance and make a tour reservation before coming to Hearst Castle.

For ticket and tour information please visit: A journey to this California Historical Landmark on the beautiful Central Coast of California will leave you intrigued and inspired, as I have been fascinated by its splendor ever since my first visit in 1969.

Hearst Castle was designed by architect Julia Morgan in close collaboration with her client, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, beginning in 1919 until 1947, as a residence at his ranch in San Simeon. In the latter years, Morgan’s work on the Castle was curtailed 1937-45 because of financial constraints and the war. Morgan’s work was limited due to Hearst’s failing health, and her own, which began to deteriorate in 1947. Hearst left the hilltop then and died in 1951. Hearst Corporation offered the estate to the State of California in 1957; the deed of gift was signed in 1958. Works of art were donated afterwards in three major phases. The castle became a California State Park in 1958 and the site was opened to visitors that same year.

In the 1920s and 1930s, it was a playground for the A list, as stories go. “The Times We Had, Life with William Randolph Hearst,” by Marion Davies, Hearst’s companion of many years, sets the scene…

“Against the background of the great worldwide depression of the thirties, Marion and W.R. lived in a style that rivaled the grandeur of European royalty, and indeed they traveled in those circles.”

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“The Times We Had, Life with William Randolph Hearst,”by Marion Davies

Marion Davies writes:

“W.R. should have been an architect, but he would have been terribly expensive for anybody. He was always changing things. But he just lived for plans, and anytime you wanted to find him, he would be in the architect’s office. It was that way at San Simeon.”


The collection includes approximately 20,000 objects and/or works of art. The site features exquisite gardens, and sweeping vistas of the Pacific Ocean as far as the eye can see from vantage points on the terraces and the buildings. The property includes welcoming guest bungalows that are a few thousand square feet in size, breathtaking architecture, and, the pièce de résistance of the main residence––the majestic Casa Grande.

Hearst Castle’s history begins in 1865, when George Hearst purchased 48,000 acres of ranchland. After Mrs. Hearst died in 1919, their son William Randolph Hearst inherited that land and bought more, eventually creating a spread of approximately 250,000 acres. He conceived a retreat he called La Cuesta Encantada—Spanish for “The Enchanted Hill.” By 1947, Hearst’s health was failing, and he had to leave his estate unfinished when he moved to Beverly Hills to be closer to better health care. The estate, now known as Hearst Castle, comprises 165 rooms and 123 acres of gardens, terraces, pools, and walkways—all built to Hearst’s specifications that showcase part of his legendary art collection.

California State Parks preserves, protects, and restores the wonders of Hearst Castle for future generations, and strives to preserve and protect valuable cultural resources throughout the state—which includes the architecture and the priceless art collections within Hearst Castle.

Hearst Castle Art Treasures

The curatorial staff works with expert conservators to preserve works of art by using, up-to-date methods and techniques, expert training in art history, fine arts and chemistry, and meticulous attention to detail. In addition to the support of state funds, both Friends of Hearst Castle and Hearst Castle Preservation Foundation provide funds for conservation to help protect Mr. Hearst’s vast art collection.


Hearst Castle: San Simeon, CA. “Roman Pool.” Photo Credit: Courtesy Hearst Castle® All Rights Reserved.

Historical Structures

From tile mosaics in the Roman Pool to the tile roof of Casa Grande, Hearst Castle’s Historic Building Restoration Department is preserving the historic structures of this legendary hilltop estate for years to come, while conforming to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.


The Hearst Castle Preservation Foundation’s primary mission is to help preserve and restore Hearst Castle’s approximately 20,000 objects and/or works of art.

Friends of Hearst Castle, a nonprofit cooperating association, supports preservation and interpretation of Hearst Castle, including its art, artifacts, architecture and grounds through membership, education, outreach and special events; enhancing understanding and appreciation, and thereby enriching the visitor experience.


Span of the Collection

The span of the collection encompasses art from ancient Egypt around 1800 BCE to Europe and USA around 1945, and includes primarily European art, but also North and South American, Middle Eastern, and Asian art.

It features classical antiquities, as well as Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco works of art.

Mr. Hearst’s early preference for the style of the estate was inspired by Spanish architecture around 1500. He referred correctly to the Plateresque style of architecture of that time, which was essentially a transition from late Gothic to early Renaissance, with plain walls setting off decorated windows and doorframes. His five other residences were done in styles such as German Gothic, British 15th-18th century, and French 18th century.

Insights into The Collection

Each architectural structure or work of art in the collection had to meet the aesthetic of both Mr. Hearst and Julia Morgan. An exceptional amount of detail and planning was required to install or set an object in just the right place. The “Great Barney” mantelpiece in the Assembly Room of the main house is notable.

Hearst notes to Morgan (May 16, 1922):

“I bought the mantel. It is really a wonderful one… It will be carefully packed and shipped. In the meantime, I know you will build a hall to receive it.”

On December 29, 1923, Morgan was able to write Hearst:

“The big Renaissance fireplace in the social room of the main building is up… and is so much more beautiful than the photograph suggested, that it is a delight.”


Hearst Castle: San Simeon, CA. “Assembly Room.” Photo Credit: Courtesy Hearst Castle® All Rights Reserved.

One important painting in the Castle, an early 14th century Madonna and Child was not bought by Hearst, but instead was a gift to Hearst from Cissy Patterson, the publisher of the Washington, DC Times-Herald. She agreed to work for Hearst as editor when he declined to sell his two DC newspapers to her, but she eventually bought the papers.

Hearst always promoted the importance of professional women: the head of his London office who oversaw his European and Asian operations was a woman, his most preferred architect, Julia Morgan, was a woman, and his preferred screenplay-writer Frances Marion, was a woman.

Architectural details of the magnificent ceilings, mantles, columns, or other elements installed in the Castle

The most important group is the historic ceilings from Italy and Spain, late 14th century to the 18th century. There are approximately 40 ceilings of this type. The estate comprises about 165 rooms, so a visitor can imagine the number of doors that must be at the Castle from that figure alone. However, many of the doors are copies made to match by Morgan’s craftsmen, and others have been replaced. There are dozens of historic architectural elements built into the fabric of the estate.

Select commissioned works and acquired artifacts

Generally, Hearst acquired works of art from his best dealers such as Wildenstein, Duveen, Knoedler, French & Co., and Brummer, or from auction. A useful reference is S. N. Behrman’s book on Duveen for some amusing tales. And of course, Marion Davies’ autobiography, “The Times We Had,” provides enjoyable accounts, available in the Castle shop.


Hearst Castle: San Simeon, CA. “Refectory.” Photo Credit: Courtesy Hearst Castle® All Rights Reserved.

Some items were inherited from Hearst’s mother including the tapestry in Musician’s Loft in the Refectory, some Baroque paintings in the North Wing, or the Tiffany lamp traditionally in the Assembly Room — currently on view in the Visitor Center. Hearst almost never bought fully formed collections en bloc, although he might buy more than 20 objects from a single collection when the collection was auctioned. Hearst and Morgan commissioned architectural elements from Jules Suppo (who supplied carved wood architectural members such as the teak pediment); Edward Trinkkeller for metalwork; and Theodore and John van der Loo; and decorative paintings such as those by Camille Solon for the vaults in the Gothic Study and North Wing top floor sitting room.


Hearst Castle: San Simeon, CA. “A conservator working on the Morning Room ceiling.” Photo Credit: Courtesy Hearst Castle® All Rights Reserved.

The Process of Conservation

Among Hearst Castle’s many complex conservation projects, the repair of the Neptune Pool currently requires the most work. This includes the preliminary surveyor’s work, protecting the historic tiled concrete paths and steps on which heavy equipment is moved, renovating the pumps and pipes, sealing cracks, adding waterproof material, installing marble tiles, setting marble gutters and ladders, testing the waterproofing, and more. The gigantic marble sculptures on pedestals in the pool had to be lifted out of the pool for cleaning and removal of accretions. Taking the sculptures out of the pool was very challenging because they weigh a few tons. Actual treatment, such as removal of stains and accretions was not complicated.

Treatment of the ceiling in the Morning Room (early 15th century), with its innumerable decorative motifs, entails re-adhering the paint that is flaking, cleaning off centuries of accumulated grime and soot, in-painting some of the losses, and applying a thin coat of varnish to protect the paint. The conservator is only on site for a week every month on average, so the process will take a total of about 10 years.

There are many complex treatments of other specific works of art too lengthy to mention here. It’s difficult to quantify and compare the “amount” of restoration of a painted wood column, an embroidered banner, a wool tapestry, or a Greek vase, which has old repairs that must be re-done. Each treatment is done on a case-by-case basis. The objective is to have a work of art that looks old but, well cared-for — rather than “restored.”

Imagine the Logistics!

Various itineraries and means of transport were used depending on the source, or point of departure of a shipment, and what decade and/or destination were under discussion.

Most of the items at the Castle were purchased in New York, so shipments from Europe, except in specific cases were handled by the dealers in New York before Hearst’s involvement in the process.

Hearst also bought a considerable amount of material from dealers in England for his other residences in the United States. These works of art were shipped in crates by ship from dealers in Europe. Crates could be unloaded in New York and brought by ship or railroad from there, often to San Francisco, and then by ship to San Simeon, or by train from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo, then by truck to San Simeon. Crates were also sent to Los Angeles and then trucked to San Simeon. Transportation by ship through the Panama Canal was effected too.


Hearst Castle: San Simeon, CA. “Casa Grande” front façade. Photo Credit: Courtesy Hearst Castle® All Rights Reserved.

Regarding objects or works of art in the collection…

Probably the most instructive is Morgan’s warning to Hearst about an auction of furniture and other decorative arts from Spain. He asked her about dozens of items. She informed him that she had heard that much of the material in the auction was either not historic, repaired, or not worthwhile. However, he knew about the doubtful authenticity, but noted that the material would be useful for furnishing the Castle anyway, so they would proceed with the purchase. For the most part, he was fairly well informed and knew what he was buying according to what was known at the time. If he had doubts later on, he would ask experts to review the object for him. He relied on prestigious provenances and his favorite dealers’ opinions, too. Sometimes the dealers and previous owners (connoisseurs though they were) still made mistakes. They were operating with the level of information that they had almost 100 years ago. We have made much progress in research, connoisseurship, and scientific analysis since then.

A few accounts can be found in Victoria Kastner’s book, “Hearst Castle: Biography of a Country House,” (Abrams, various editions); and “Hearst the Collector,” by Mary Levkoff (Abrams, 2008), although most of the accounts in Levkoff’s book involve works of art that are not at the Castle.

There are many tales of Hearst as a collector, including this one, which was reported in an early biography: “as a young man, Hearst was disappointed when the French agent representing him at an auction failed to purchase an ancient sculpture because Hearst had used the slang word ‘darned,’ (which the agent thought meant ‘repaired’) when issuing his instructions. The French agent thought that Hearst did not want objects that had been repaired. This story does not ring true because “darned” in French is not the same word as “repaired” in French. Furthermore, Hearst would normally not have used a colloquial word like “darned” when giving orders for bidding at auction. It’s doubtful that this anecdote has a factual basis, although an intermediary (perhaps one of Hearst’s registrars?) might have misinterpreted the order and relayed it wrongly to the French agent.

Process of Documenting and Accessioning an Artifact

The Museum staff does not accession additional works of art because the state is not acquiring anything else for the Castle except for accessories for the Living History program. The collection at the Castle is essentially frozen in time. The focus is on preserving and interpreting the original art collection donated to the State of California by the Hearst family and Corporation. Julia Morgan’s staff in California or Mr. Hearst’s registrars in New York would record the source from which the work of art was purchased, the price paid, the date, and the name of previous owners if they were important. Systematic recordkeeping was only undertaken in the early 1920s, so information about many items purchased before this time is spotty. The collection in Hearst’s apartment in New York, for example, was not fully inventoried. The main inventory was recorded for Hearst in bound volumes with photographs. A summarized version was copied onto index-cards without photos. The date of transportation was often recorded too. Subsidiary lists were also drawn up depending on what information was needed (e.g., by location).

The Parks and Recreation department has a computerized database, in which the basic information has been recorded; this is not yet available online.  This rarely includes the full record of pre-Hearst ownership other than the name of the dealer because about 25,000 records had to be converted from hard copy. Continuous research is recorded as new information is discovered or confirmed. Whenever a new publication features an authorized photograph of a work of art, the new information is recorded.


Hearst Castle has the distinction of receiving accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM), founded in 1906, has been accrediting museums since the 1970’s, and this distinction is currently held by 1,065 museums, or approximately 3 percent of U.S. museums. To earn accreditation, a museum must complete a detailed self-study of all areas of their operations. Two peer reviewers (senior staff from comparable institutions) read the self-study, visit the museum, and write a report summarizing their observations. Finally, the self-study and report are reviewed by nine museum professionals who volunteer to serve on the Accreditation Commission. For accreditation, AAM requires that a museum meet certain standards for its mission, public trust, planning, collections stewardship, education and interpretation, financial stability, facilities, and risk management.

In 2001, California State Parks noted, “Hearst Castle was awarded the highest honor a museum can receive – accreditation by the American Association of Museums, now American Alliance of Museums, meaning it is operating on all levels according to the highest professional standards.” As the ultimate mark of distinction in the museum field, accreditation signifies excellence and credibility to the entire museum community, to governments and outside agencies, and to the museum-going public.


Special thanks to Jim Allen, Director of Marketing and Communications at Hearst Castle, and the staff of Hearst Castle for their research, and insight into the artifacts and legacy of William Randolph Hearst.

William Randolph Hearst’s archives are included in the Online Archive of California, an initiative of the California Digital Library, through UC Berkeley Bancroft Library; and Astor Digital Library and the B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library at Long Island University, and also in the Special Collections and Archives at the Robert E. Kennedy Library at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

Friends of Hearst Castle support the preservation and conservation of Hearst Castle and its collection, and also provides for local educational outreach in our Central Coast region of California. Please visit:

This narrative transcript features “The Art of Hearst Castle,” from “The Art of Life with Dr. Jill Thayer” on Voice of Paso Internet radio. An audio narrative of the full podcast is available at: “The Art of Hearst Castle” and all podcast programs may be heard on Research, text, and narrative content, copyright 2001-2018, Hearst Castle, California State Parks. All rights reserved. Narrative compilation in this podcast, copyright 2018, Jill Thayer, Ph.D. All rights reserved. Thanks to S.W. Martin & Associates, Paso Robles for podcast production on the VOP. 


Jill Thayer, Ph.D. is an artist, educator, art historian, curator, and archivist. She received her doctorate in Cultural Studies/Museum Studies from Claremont Graduate University with transdisciplinary study in Global Strategy and Trade at St. Peter’s College, University of Oxford, UK. Jill brings insight to the contemporary dialogue by exploring the narratives of people and their contributions to the culture. “In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art,” her post-doctoral fellowship series of Claremont Graduate University Art alumni, professors, and professors emeritus is included in Archives of American Art at The Smithsonian Institution. Jill is a professor of Art History, Global Visual Culture, and Marketing Management for colleges and universities nationally in online and onsite courses. She is a contributing writer for art publications internationally and produces “The Art of Life,” a podcast for Voice of Paso Internet radio on the Central Coast in California where she lives and works.