Over the weekend, Nina and I, along with a couple of friends, drove down to San Simeon, to tour William Randolph Hearst’s legendary estate, which served as the inspiration for the fictional Citizen Kane’s “Xanadu”. We wanted to see “Hearst Castle”, as it’s popularly and somewhat inaccurately called today, before the Christmas decorations came down. On Saturday, we took the last night tour of the season, and on Sunday, one of the several day tours that are offered.
In contrast to the cold, dark, gothic, cavernous surroundings depicted in Kane, while the entire San Simeon estate is enormous, the individual rooms feel surprisingly warm and inviting. Those rooms are very large, especially when compared to the average home, and yet, the whole thing is built on a surprisingly human scale. For the interior effect as a whole, think Stately Wayne Manor, rather than Kane’s Xanadu, for an appropriate historic fictional pop culture comparison.
This brief snippet of Wikipedia’s page on Hearst Castle suggests what Hearst was trying to accomplish:
The estate is a pastiche of historic architectural styles that Hearst admired in his travels around Europe. For example, the main house is modeled after a 16th century Spanish cathedral, while the outdoor pool features an ancient Roman temple front transported wholesale from Europe and reconstructed at the site. Hearst furnished the estate with truckloads of art, antiques, and even whole ceilings that he acquired en masse from Europe and Egypt.
On both tours the state-supplied guides repeated numerous times that as a proper progressive, Hearst was not at all a religious man.
Heaven forbid! If you’ll pardon the religious allusions. Hearst certainly didn’t mind them, as so much of the building’s interiors and artwork has a Catholic theme, because Hearst was obsessed with recreating the Europe he explored in his younger days on the Grand Tour with his parents.
Construction of Hearst’s estate began in 1919 and continued until 1947, when Hearst was too ill to remain living on his estate; he would eventually move to Beverly Hills to be closer to his surgeons, and died in 1951.
That means that the bulk of the construction was occurring in the 1920s, the very decade that the modernists of Weimar Germany’s nascent Bauhaus movement (and those in Europe’s International Style who moved more or less in its orbit, such as France’s Le Corbusier) were doing their utter damndest to banish not just decoration in architecture, but the past as well. As Tom Wolfe wrote in From Bauhaus To Our House:
The country of the young Bauhausler, Germany, had been crushed in the war and humiliated at Versailles; the economy had collapsed in a delirium of inflation; the Kaiser had departed; the Social Democrats had taken power in the name of socialism; mobs of young men ricocheted through the cities drinking beer and awaiting a Soviet-style revolution from the east, or some terrific brawls at the very least. Rubble, smoking ruins–starting from zero! If you were young, it was wonderful stuff. Starting from zero referred to nothing less than re-creating the world.
The result was a fire sale for someone on Hearst’s enormous budget. If Europe was committed to destroying itself and starting over from zero, Hearst would buy the best of the past for his home.
I think Mies, who always expressed a fondness for old churches, beginning with Charlemagne’s cathedral in Aachen, his birthplace, and any building that was “really built”, as he would say, would have admired San Simeon. But Corbusier would have probably broken out in hives just from looking at its photos, let alone visiting there. (If 20th century Manhattan upset Corbu’s delicate equilibrium, just imagine what San Simeon would have done.)
It’s a reminder that culture wars are nothing new, and are often partially internecine struggles: at the very moment when the leftwing progressives of the Bauhaus movement were banishing the past, another liberal of the time (at least before FDR–whom Hearst had originally supported–nearly taxed him out of existence in the mid-’30s, causing Hearst’s politics to swing to the isolationist-era anti-New Deal right) was spending millions of his own fortune to preserve it.
And as it must to all men, death came to William Randolph Hearst. Whoops, sorry to go all Kane on you! When I quipped to our first tour guide, “what, there’s no sled”, he immediately shot back, “They burned it at the end of the movie, didn’t they?”
The modernists eventually won their cultural battle of course, and “Starting From Zero” would become the recurring theme of the 20th century, (certainly not just in architecture) and like the fictional Kane’s posessions, Europe is still finding new ways to continue its cultural self-immolation and the fire sale on its past.
But with Hearst’s demise, San Simeon is now open to the public. If you’re ever out this way, I highly recommend a visit.