15 Fanciful Facts About the Hearst Castle

Jake Seiner
Jake Seiner / Jake Seiner

There's plenty to see as you cruise along California's famed Highway 1. But undoubtedly the most unexpected sight I came upon during a recent road-trip from San Diego to San Francisco was a small group of zebras, looking surprisingly right at home along the side of the road just south of Los Padres National Forest and somewhere north of where we'd spent the night in San Luis Obispo.

I didn't know it then, but the zebras were a sign that I had all but arrived at my destination: The Hearst Castle. Over the course of a guided tour of the grounds and a viewing of Building the Dream, a 40-minute video on the history of the castle that features some great vintage footage, I learned where the zebras came from and much more about the 20th century castle commissioned by William Randolph Hearst.

1. Many specific aspects of the castle were inspired by a trip young William took with his mother around Europe. William was born in 1863; just two years later, his father, George Hearst, purchased 40,000 acres of ranchland in San Simeon using the millions he'd made from a career in mining. The family used the property as a camping retreat. When William was 10, his mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, took him on a grand tour around Europe that lasted a year and a half. Although he was quite young at the time, the trip left an impression on William and when he designed the Castle decades later, he incorporated a vast array of different European styles of architecture and artwork.

2. William inherited the land in 1919 from his mother (George Hearst had died in 1891). By then, it had grown to encompass 250,000 acres. He had plans to build a small bungalow on what the family often called "Camp Hill" and contacted the architect responsible for renovating his late mother's home.

3. The architect was 47-year-old Julia Morgan, who was the first woman to receive a certification in architecture from L'École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and California's first licensed female architect. "Miss Morgan, we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something," Hearst initially wrote to Morgan. But once the two began brainstorming, plans for the Castle—which was called "La Cuesta Encantada," or the Enchanted Hill—grew exponentially.

4. Hearst and Morgan worked for 28 years on the castle, spending $6.5 million on the building and $3.5 million on fantastic art from all over the world to fill the rooms.

5. Fortunately, Morgan had the forethought to use reinforced concrete for the exterior walls, necessary for the building's longevity in such a seismically-active area.

6. The Neptune Pool, one of two intricately-tiled pools on the premises, took 15 years to build. Three different versions were built during that time, each larger than the one before. The other pool is an indoor pool modeled after the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

7. Hearst loved trees. During excavation for the castle, he had live trees carefully dug up and transported to a new location on the mountain side. As if that wasn't enough, he and his crew planted 70,000 trees on the property during his years there.

8. The outside, with the palm trees and the views of the water, are all California. But the interior rooms are so strikingly similar to European castles that the set designers for Harry Potter used Hearst's dining hall as inspiration for the one at Hogwarts.

9. The walls of the dining hall are lined with 15th century choir stalls, which included an architectural feature that allowed choir boys of yore to slump back and rest their feet while still appearing to be standing. In Hearst's heyday, this feature was greatly appreciated by the waitstaff.

10. In addition to Casa Grande (the main building), which has 38 bedrooms and 42 bathrooms, a private theater, library, billiard room, etc., there are three guest houses on the property: Casa Del Monte (House of the Mountain), Casa Del Sol (House of the Sun), and Casa Del Mar (House of the Sea), where the Hearst family lived for a year.

11. Hearst entertained a number of political leaders, cultural icons and Hollywood's elite at the Castle—all with noted actress (and notably not-his-wife) Marion Davies as hostess. The invitations were often open-ended, but several guests noted that, as their stay wore on, their seat at dinner moved further and further from Hearst himself—a subtle hint that they had overstayed their welcome.

12. Hearst hosted all sorts of theme parties for his famous guests. Clark Gable and Cary Grant, among others, attended a pioneer-themed bash. And for Hearst's 71st birthday, the festivities were Civil War-themed.

13. Ever the businessman, Hearst had 100 different telephones placed around the premises so he was never out of touch. He even had one telephone installed behind a tree along the path, which not only helped him keep up with business matters but also allowed him to wow guests with his ability to conjure up the baseball score mid-horseback ride.

14. Also in the name of keeping tabs on his media empire, Hearst received a copy of each of his newspapers at the castle every day. A private plane that often brought guests along with the papers made the daily trip to the estate's private landing strip.

15. And about those zebras? Hearst established an impressive menagerie, formally called the Hearst Garden of Comparative Zoology, during his time at the castle. You can see the empty cages that once held grizzly bears, lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, cougars, chimpanzees, orangutans, monkeys, and an elephant on your ride back down the mountain to the visitors center, but most of the animals are long gone. Hearst began selling off the animals in response to financial difficulty during his lifetime. After his death, many of those that remained were donated to zoos. The zebras, however, along with some other species like elk, sheep and goats, were allowed to roam free on the mountainside. Today, descendants of those zebras can still be seen on the property.

All photos courtesy of Jake Seiner