Hearst Castle, palace to the stars, still shines bright today

Once the playground of Hollywood's most famous stars, journalists, and politicians, William Randolph Hearst's California mansion will always be worth the trip.

A look down the steps of Hearst Castle at the Neptune Pool, one of the showcase features of the giant estate that was the home of media magnate William Randolph Hearst. CNET Road Trip 2012 stopped by last week for a behind-the-scenes tour.

SAN SIMEON, Calif.--To visit Hearst Castle, the private palace built by media magnate William Randolph Hearst along the Central California coast, was to enter a place completely out of any obvious time period.

Easily one of America's most notorious homes -- it was fictionalized as Xanadu in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane," Hearst Castle was first conceptualized in 1919 and was never finished. Work stopped when the media magnate left in 1947, four years before he died.

Packed with hundreds upon hundreds of priceless antiquities from throughout Western history, Hearst Castle was constructed before there were ever any serious building codes in California. Yet when a major earthquake struck the area in 2003, the main buildings on the 250,000-acre estate suffered no appreciable damage.

Hearst himself became one of America's richest men during the first half of the 20th century, but battered by the Great Depression, incurred $100 million in debt, forcing him to sell large parts of the estate. Hearst Castle itself is now managed by the state of California and each year, more than 630,000 people visit for tours of the stunning property.

As part of Road Trip 2012, I dropped in and was given a behind-the-scenes tour by senior tour guide George Cartter. Spanning the main building of the estate, Casa Grande, as well as looks into its three guest houses -- Casa del Mar, Casa del Sol, and Casa del Monte, as well as its two giant pools -- the Neptune Pool and the Roman Pool (see video above) -- it's easy to see how Hearst easily lured most of America's and the world's luminaries to come and spend fun-filled days sharing the fruits of his empire.

Daniel Terdiman

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Visiting Hearst Castle is not something to be taken lightly. Most visitors see just small parts of the giant estate, not surprising given that just the four main buildings comprise 58 total bedroom, countless other rooms, and one of the most famous art collections in American history.

These days, budget cuts have forced the state of California to restrict areas of the castle that used to be available to visitors, but Cartter took me into some of them, including the glorious Celestial Suite on the mansion's fourth floor. There, I found the South Celestial Bedroom, a room in the south tower of the building that journalist Hedda Hopper was said to have called "like a jewel box" because of the openwork window grilles and the golden light that came in. Featuring three small private balconies, the room afforded its few invited guests -- such as Hopper -- panoramic views of Central California coast and the Pacific Ocean that would be hard to match anywhere in the world.

Hearst was a married man, but his mistress, actress Marion Davies, nevertheless had her own suite on the same level of the main mansion building as Hearst himself. Davies, a well-known lush, is said to have been responsible for a large number of the countless bottles of wine and booze that can still be found in the 10,000-bottle-capacity wine cellar on the bottom floor of the building.

Though Hearst was an old newspaper man, he wanted to progress with technology, and bought his first television station in his 80s, not long before he died in 1951. But his love of antiquities from throughout Western history -- Cartter said Hearst had a European married couple on retainer for years who were tasked with buying him classic doors and ceilings -- shows that he was not really a man of his own time.

 

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