Sunday, May 5, 2013

Enchanted Hill

When William Randolph Hearst decided to build a vacation home high above San Simeon, he didn’t let a little thing like location get in his way.  Camp Hill, the site he picked, rose 1600 feet above sea level with five miles of winding cattle paths connecting it to the village below.  With the Pacific on one side and the Santa Lucia Mountains on the other, it was an isolated spot that wouldn’t take kindly to development.

It all began in 1865 when George Hearst bought the Piedra Blanca Ranch for $30,000.  The 40,000 acres were located 200 miles south of San Francisco near San Simeon Bay.  The ranch became a favorite campsite for George, his wife, Phoebe and their only child, William Randolph.  As a man, the younger Hearst took his own wife and sons to the ranch whenever he could.  There they stayed, with as many as 50 people, including guests and servants, in a complex of tents.  Despite the remote location, the Hearsts entertained with style throwing lavish dances and elaborate parties. 
By the time, Hearst reached his mid-fifties, he decided it was time to get rid of the tents.  He envisioned a permanent vacation home high atop Camp Hill, now referred to as Enchanted Hill, overlooking the Pacific.  He first met with architect Julia Morgan n 1919.  Choosing a Mediterranean style, Hearst and Morgan made plans for the main house and three smaller guesthouses.  Before construction even started, however, Morgan had her work cut out for her.

Getting materials to San Simeon was next to impossible.  Forced to come by ship from San Francisco, a waterfront strike delayed deliveries.  Finally, in December 1919, the first shipment of lumber, nails and tools arrived on an old freighter.  Next, Morgan had to get the supplies and equipment up the hill.  She had the five-mile road rebuilt and found trucks powerful enough to haul everything to the top.  She also reconstructed the pier so larger ships, carrying more materials, could dock and unload in San Simeon Bay. 
Morgan’s job wasn’t limited to the buildings.  The grounds were rugged and not in keeping with Hearst’s Mediterranean theme.  First, the rocky ridge had to be terraced with some particularly stubborn areas requiring dynamite.  Next, topsoil was hauled up the hill and the terraces leveled.  Water had to be piped down from natural springs in the surrounding mountains.  Once the ground was ready, trees, plants and shrubs had to be shipped to San Simeon, and then carted up the five-mile road before being planted in their designated spots.

By 1921, the Hearsts were staying in Casa del Mar, the largest of the guest houses.  It took another five years before they moved into the main house, Casa Grande, which was only partially complete.  A passionate collector of antiques, Hearst filled the place with historic items from all over the world.  He even bought European castles, as well as a complete Spanish monastery stone by stone across the Atlantic to incorporate into his estate.  His love of animals moved him to build a private zoo.  His menagerie included ostriches, llamas, giraffes, lions and an elephant named Marianne.  The descendents of the original zebras still roam the ranch today and are often spotted by motorists driving along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Although, Casa Grande was never totally finished, Hearst called it home, affectionately referring to it as ‘the ranch’.  In his later years, when his son, William Randolph Hearst, Jr., questioned why he built such a fabulous estate in such an odd spot, his father replied:  “I just wanted to.  Period.  I loved the place.”


  1. Hey Debra, as my next book is set against the battle over "Citizen Kane", you won't be surprised to learn that I enjoyed this piece!

  2. Glad you liked it, Martin! And I am sure looking forward to your next installment. About 3/4 through The Trouble With Scarlet and enjoying it immensely!

  3. I recently read David Niven's "Bring on the Empty Horses", where he talks about Hearst and his activities. Casa Grande sounds like a fascinating, expensive project - it is too bad it was never fully completed.

    On a side note, I just wanted to say that I read and comment on your blog each week, but many times my comments are deleted when I hit "publish". Anyway, I'm a big fan of your blog even if I'm not always able to say so. :)

  4. So nice to hear from you. So sorry your comments are deleted sometimes. I will let my technical person know that there may be a problem. I also have read 'Bring on the Empty Horses'--a great book. The section on Casa Granda made me want to go there to see it. So far, I think we have been there 4 times and took a different tour each time. I never get tired of it and can only imagine the lavish parties and celebrated guests that were part of the place. Thank you again for stopping by!