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The inner workings of the Castle

Times Staff Writer

It doesn’t take long, wandering behind the scenes among the 38 bedrooms and 41 bathrooms (not counting those in the guest quarters next door), to sense a few differences between your house and Hearst Castle.

The museum accreditation, for instance. The paid staff of 234, not counting the food, gift shop, bus and movie concessions. The conservator in the billiard room delicately applying a brush to an ornate pine ceiling that dates to 15th century Spain.

“Hearst acquired it, I think, in 1930 or ’31,” says Gary Hulbert, the conservator, peering down from his perch on a metal scaffold. “And it was installed in 1932.”

Yet as this storied 127-acre mansion property marks its 50th anniversary as state property on Monday, it becomes less an anomaly every day.

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For the evidence, look at Las Vegas, the new North American capital of promiscuously juxtaposed European architectural fantasies. Look down the list of the world’s wealthiest media companies, where William Randolph Hearst’s corporation has fallen out of the Top 15. And look at the houses that belong to today’s top executives: Bill Gates of Microsoft with his 66,000-square-foot lakefront compound in Medina, Wash.; Larry Ellison of Oracle with his 23-acre Japanese estate near San Francisco; the 123-room French chateau in Holmby Hills commissioned by producer Aaron Spelling, who died in 2006. California has plenty of castles these days.

So maybe it’s not surprising that the annual visitor count at Hearst Castle has fallen from more than 1 million in the late 1980s to fewer than 670,000 in 2006-07. We have plenty of crazy buildings these days, and some of them have even more powerful families behind them.

But are we here, inside California’s original over-the-top castle, to grumble that the goblet is half-empty? We are not.

Hearst Castle, donated to the state by the Hearst Corp. on Dec. 31, 1957, and opened to public tours six months later, remains the fanciest open house you’ll find between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s a living (and occasionally leaking) testament to what results when a well-traveled, art-intoxicated, house-proud rich guy ignores all common sense, keeps a patient and pliable architect busy through 28 years of design, construction, addition and revision, then leaves it all in the hands of a government agency.

It’s a big job just to keep the art safe and the doors open, and that’s the drama we’re here to spy on.

AN EARLY START

Just after 6 most mornings, museum custodian Letty Lachance is among a team of six to 10 people who creep up the hill in a van and unlock a basement-level door, make their way through the pantry and kitchen, open the main doors, throw about 100 light switches and get to sweeping, mopping, dusting, vacuuming, waxing and adjusting the rubber mats that tourists will step onto starting at about 8:20.

Gingerly, they work around the tapestries and silver, the ancient Greek amphorae, the 17th century Persian tiles, the 15th century Spanish chest, the 14th century Italian paintings. Outside, four gardeners armed with backpack blowers blast and rake leaves from tour paths, then gather up the night’s fallen fruit. Three times a week, they deadhead the roses and other flowers.

Meanwhile, restoration supervisor Bruce Jackson prowls the southern terrace, his gaze traveling back and forth between the tile work underfoot and the teakwood gables now being refinished by workers on scaffolding four stories up.

In a minute, he’ll swing by a set of greenhouses, reconstructed after 60 years of decay, that are almost ready for plants again.

“It’s just like having your own house,” says curator Frank Young, “but 1,000 times bigger.”

And more visible. On Feb. 12, 1976, while Patty Hearst was on trial in Los Angeles in connection with her involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army, a terrorist group called the New World Liberation Front bombed the balcony of one of the guest houses, causing about $1 million in damage. The blast, which staffers did their best to keep quiet at the time, ultimately prompted the Hearst family to give up a guest house it had continued to use. It also prompted tighter security, which continues today.

It cost $9.75 million last year to operate the castle, which is open for tours 362 days of the year and available for weddings and bar mitzvahs if you don’t mind a bill of four or five figures. Between ticket sales ($20 to $30 per adult), concession income and those special events, the castle brought gross revenues of $11 million to the state park system. (The “profit” helps cover the cost of running other state parks.)

Though the castle is public property, it remains a personalized place. “It’s not like going through a museum where they’ve got plastic boxes over everything,” says curator Mary Levkoff, who has been organizing a 2008 Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition of works collected by Hearst. Moreover, she says, “Every time I go there, I see something I didn’t notice before.”

She likens it to the castles built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, whose architectural ambitions encouraged composer Richard Wagner in the 19th century and inspired Walt Disney in the 20th. (Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein was the model for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle.)

As for America’s other mansions, none can match the role played by Hearst’s in the first half of the 20th century. This is partly because there’s no Orson Welles around to make another “Citizen Kane.” And it may be impossible now to match a houseguest roster that starts with actor Charlie Chaplin dining on venison, author P.G. Wodehouse cracking wise about the yaks in the private zoo, photographer Cecil Beaton joining a trail ride, comic Harpo Marx turning somersaults in the library and actors David Niven and Cary Grant bemoaning the shortage of booze.

In “Hearst Castle: The Biography of a Country House,” author Victoria Kastner notes that Hearst’s favorite guests were show-business people, perhaps because they “had little sense of history, still less of social standing, but they had a tremendous appreciation for effect.”

The property, built by Hearst (a.k.a. “The Chief”) and architect Julia Morgan between 1919 and 1947, includes four houses: the 115-room, 60,645-square-foot Casa Grande, which has 30 fireplaces to go with all those bedrooms and bathrooms; and three sizable guest residences.

Together, they give the effect of a little hill town huddled around a twin-towered cathedral.

Then there are the castle’s water features: the outdoor Neptune Pool and the indoor Roman Pool, which lies, in all its blue-tiled splendor, under the tennis courts. And there was the zoo. Although it was mostly dismantled before Hearst’s death in 1951, zebras, goats and deer still wander the Hearst-owned ranchland next to the castle. Sometimes, on your way up the winding path to the hilltop, you can glimpse them through the mist.

But you probably won’t glimpse too many staffers. By 10:30 a.m., when things are just heating up at the National Geographic Theater (opened in 1996) and the visitor center (which got a $5-million remodel in 2006), most castle employees are halfway through the workday. When the tourists are on the march, they like to disappear.

The cleaning team keeps its vacuum cleaners, light bulbs and toilet paper in one of Hearst’s old safes -- the liquor vault where the Chief, mindful of his mistress Marion Davies’ alcoholism, kept most of his spirits under lock and key.

On the first of every month, employees turn over the rubber mats that tour groups tread upon and pull out poles to do the high dusting, a tall order in a house whose ground floor has 24-foot ceilings.

To keep indoor humidity around 50% and the temperature between 65 and 70 degrees, Lachance paces the Casa Grande, setting and resetting 53 humidifiers and 50 dehumidifiers. Just in the Refectory, the main dining room, she tends two humidifiers, one dehumidifier, two ionic air filters and three fans.

Hearst, who lived from 1863 to 1951, made his name by converting his family’s mining fortune into a newspaper and magazine empire. He developed many of his tastes in the course of European travels at a tender age. In designing the castle, he and Morgan were influenced most by Spain.

But really, it’s a U.N. assembly up here, with many countries and many centuries of the last millennium represented, and many BC as well. The estimated cost of it all was less than $10 million, but remember inflation. And bear in mind that, beyond San Simeon, Hearst bankrolled five other residences: a Welsh castle, a Long Island estate for his wife, a five-floor apartment in New York, a lavish home for mistress Davies in Santa Monica and a Northern California retreat near the Oregon border.

“I suppose I have much in common with Hearst,” wrote Jean Paul Getty after his own visit in 1934. “I, however, have always spent 95% or more of my money on my business, while Hearst was the other way around.”

FULL OF TREASURES

Even before “Citizen Kane” fixed its caricature of Hearst in the public mind, many highbrows mocked him for having more money than taste. But it’s worth noting that through donation or sales due to financial duress, thousands of Hearst’s purchases wound up in major museum collections worldwide. He gave more than 800 objects to LACMA alone. For its Hearst show in November, LACMA will borrow not only from Hearst Castle (17 pieces) but also from the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Britain’s Royal Armouries.

As for the castle itself, though parts were clearly inspired by European architecture, much of it is the genuine article, not facsimiles. The genius in Hearst and Morgan’s assembly of those historic works within a modern structure, Levkoff says, “is what’s going to set it apart from somebody’s house today or from Las Vegas.”

It can be exhausting just to look around inside and imagine Hearst discovering, acquiring and placing each item, sometimes on Morgan’s advice, sometimes not. There are 22,500 artworks and antiques. And when you step outside, the ghost of the Chief stays with you.

It’s clear, says landscaping supervisor Christine Takahashi, that as busy as Hearst was running his newspapers and raiding the castles and monasteries of Europe, no detail was too minute for him, even down to gardening matters. He built around some old oaks and spent thousands of dollars moving others, rather than see them killed.

He preferred green foliage to red or silver -- even in fall. He didn’t much go in for topiary. He liked low hedges of pyracantha, eugenia, boxwood and myrtle but, oddly, nothing exotic. He also banned the picking of fruit and flowers around the main house.

Today, the hilltop is still dominated by dozens of oaks (including 10 pre-1900 trees that get kid-glove treatment), along with about 100 palms (including at least one that’s held up by metal bolts), California bays, orange, mandarin, grapefruit and lemon trees and more than 1,000 rosebushes.

“He wanted a ton of color and big flowers,” Takahashi said. But as Hearst learned over time, the hilltop climate can be a killer. After all these decades, says Takahashi, “Whatever is here is tough.”

The buildings are that way too. Beneath all the castle complex’s finery, says restoration supervisor Bruce Jackson, its walls are made of steel-reinforced concrete and its utilities are underground -- innovative choices in the 1920s and ones that withstood a stiff test four years ago, when the San Simeon earthquake registered 6.5 on the Richter scale.

“I had no idea what I was going to see that day,” recalls Hoyt Fields, director of the Hearst Castle Museum.

His staff found 12 damaged artifacts but “not one bit of structural damage done. Julia Morgan knew what she was doing.” The castle reopened after a day of stock-taking.

“It’s unbelievable how much rebar they used,” Jackson says. “The walls are 16 inches thick in the main building.”

Still, wind, water and time will have their way, and there’s plenty of work for Jackson’s staff of 21 permanent and temporary restoration and maintenance workers. In one workshop behind the Casa Grande, Jackson and his staffers use urethane molds, cement and sand in six consistencies to copy and replace exterior features as they erode. In a second workshop, restoration specialist David Wilson bakes clay tiles in a kiln to match originals made by a long-gone Berkeley manufacturer in the 1920s.

“I was paying $2 apiece for these things. And the color wasn’t right,” says Jackson, holding a blue bar tile 6 inches long. Now, instead of buying from a vendor, Jackson has Wilson making them, and the two agree that the color is better -- a good thing, because the terraces outside the Case Grande alone contain more than 40,000 of those tiles.

“Any ceramist could do it,” Wilson says. “It’s whether they’re willing to.”

Plus, Jackson adds, “There is a degree of anality that’s necessary.”

And on the subject of painstaking detail, let’s head back into the billiard room, where a tour guide and her guests have just arrived. The old Spanish ceiling, she tells her visitors, is so old that when it was first painted, Columbus had not yet sailed, and most people still thought the world was flat.

Up on his metal perch, painting conservator Gary Hulbert stays at his task under the 16-by-36-foot ceiling, applying little red dots to flaked-away spots on a painted bullfighter.

“This project has been, what, 3 1/2 years?” he says after the tourists have moved along. Hulbert, a contractor who typically works one week a month, is but one in a team of specialists whose tab, which the Friends of Hearst Castle are helping pay, is expected to reach $550,000.

They have tidied up hundreds of figures painted on the beams, corbels and coffer panels. But there are 1,019 little paintings on this ceiling, all dating to the 1480s, all survivors of five centuries of smokers’ exhalations and fireplace fumes.

Maybe your house doesn’t need this kind of work. But every homeowner who has ever hired a contractor has heard an answer like the one Hulbert gives when asked his completion date:

“It’s going to be awhile,” he says.

Magnates rise and magnates fall, but household chores are forever.

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chris.reynolds@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Planning this trip

THE BEST WAY

Drive north on Interstate 5 or U.S. 101, then head west to California 1 northbound. About 240 miles north of Los Angeles, nine miles north of Cambria and one mile north of hotel-heavy San Simeon Village, you reach the exit for Hearst Castle.

TO BOOK A TOUR

The only way to see the castle is to join a tour, which lasts about two hours. All tours begin at the visitor center, where visitors board a bus that climbs the hill. Of the five tours (which focus on different parts of the castle and its gardens), four are day tours with start times from 8:20 am to 3:20 p.m., later in summer. Evening tour times depend on sunset.

Depending on the season, prices are $20 to $30 for adults, $10 to $15 for children ages 6 to 17. Children younger than 6 are admitted free with an adult. Reservations are recommended, either at (800) 444-4445 or www.hearstcastle.com.

WHERE TO STAY

Best Western Cavalier Oceanfront Resort, 9415 Hearst Drive, San Simeon, (805) 927-4688 or www.cavalier resort.com. The hotel features a restaurant, two outdoor pools, 900 feet of ocean frontage, lots of grass for kids to run around on, three outdoor fireplaces that staffers stoke in the evening and 90 rooms. Doubles from $99.

San Simeon Pines Seaside Resort, 7200 Moonstone Beach Drive, Cambria; (866) 927-4648, www.sspines.com. This old-fashioned roadside lodging (circa 1960) is at the northern end of Cambria’s hotel row and has a wacky nine-hole golf course. About 25 of the 58 rooms are adults-only. Doubles from $100.

Cambria Pines Lodge, 2905 Burton Drive, Cambria; (800) 966-6490 or (805) 927-4200, www.cambriapineslodge.com. You see more pinecones than beach sand at this slightly inland 25-acre property set into a Cambria hillside. It has more than 200 rooms, including cabins dating to the ‘40s and about 30 “superior suites” that were completed less than two years ago. Doubles from $69.

WHERE TO EAT

Brambles Dinner House, 4005 Burton Drive, Cambria; (805) 927-4716. Steaks and Greek food in a rambling, quiet, dark dining room. Dinner entrees $15 to $32.

Hoppe’s Garden Bistro, 78 N. Ocean Ave., Cayuco; (805) 995-1006, www.hoppesbistro.com. Ambitious cuisine (including sauteed abalone) in a sleepy town. Dinner entrees $14 to $49.

Cavalier Restaurant, 9415 Hearst Drive, San Simeon; (805) 927-3276. Simple fare, convenient location, hotel adjacent. Dinner entrees $5.65 to $19.95, with children’s and seniors’ menus.

TO LEARN MORE

San Simeon Chamber of Commerce, www.sansimeonchamber.org. Cambria Chamber of Commerce, www.cambriachamber.com.

San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau, www.sanluisobispocounty.com.

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On travel.latimes.com

Get more behind-the-scenes views of Hearst Castle at latimes.com /sansimeon.


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