Inside Hearst Castle, America's favorite palace (Pictures)

William Randolph Hearst built one of the largest media empires in history, as well as one of the most ostentatious homes and art collections. Then he went $100 million in debt. CNET Road Trip 2012 stopped in for an exclusive tour.

Daniel Terdiman
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View from down the road

SAN SIMEON, Calif.--There aren't many buildings in America that are as interwoven into our culture as Hearst Castle. The longtime palace-away-from-home of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, this central California mega-mansion played host to the power elite from Hollywood to Washington, D.C. for years, and was fictionalized in Orson Welles' classic film "Citizen Kane."

This 165-room estate, built by esteemed California architect Julia Morgan on 250,000 stunning acres, features four main buildings with a total of 58 bedrooms and two giant pools with a total of 550,000 gallons of water.

Hearst Castle is famous for its -- and Hearst's -- monumental collection of original and replica art spanning centuries and a diverse range of styles. Each year more than 630,000 people drive hours to visit, and since it opened for public tours in 1958, more than 38 million people have spent time there. And that's not including some of the 20th century's most rich and famous, from Winston Churchill to John Paul Getty to Charlie Chaplin and Gary Cooper.

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Neptune Pool

Very likely among the first things that most visitors see when they step off the shuttles that bring them to Hearst Castle from below is the Neptune Pool.

Completed in 1936, the pool contains 345,000 gallons of water. The final in a series of three designs for a magnificent pool for the site, it is 104 feet long, 58 feet wide, and 95 feet wide at alcove. It features an oil burning heating system, light-veined Vermont marble decorating the pools and colonnades -- which have a set of four 17th century Italian bas-reliefs on their sides.

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Aerial view

An aerial view of the main parts of Hearst Castle, including the Neptune Pool on the left, and the main Casa Grande dominating the image.

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Roman pool

CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman got a special behind-the-scenes tour that included a visit to the top of the steps leading to the diving platform over the Roman Pool, a second swimming facility that contains 205,000 gallons of water.

A tiled indoor pool that is accompanied by statues of eight Roman gods, goddesses, and heroes, its likely inspiration was an ancient Roman bath such as the Baths of Caracalla. According to the Hearst Castle Web site, "The mosaic tiled patterns were inspired by mosaics found in the 5th Century Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy. They are also representative of traditional marine monster themes that can be found in ancient Roman baths. The statues are rough copies of ancient Greek and Roman statues. One such copy represents the 'Apoxyomenos.'"

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Assembly hall

This is Hearst Castle's Assembly Room. A giant living room where most social evenings began when Hearst had society's best and brightest on hand, there were with cocktails, lively discussion, and an opportunity to mingle with one of the early 20th century's most powerful men.

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Looking down at the Neptune Pool

A view down at the Neptune Pool from above. The main structure on the far side of the pool features a bust of Neptune, along with columns made in Egypt and Syria from the first to the fourth centuries.

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The north collonades at the Neptune Pool feature four 17th-century Italian bas-reliefs on their sides.

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Gothic Study

Hearst occupied the entire third floor of the main building, known as Casa Grande. Although his private chambers -- as well as those of his mistress, Marion Davies -- were on this level, the highlight is the Gothic Suite, which "evokes a church, with its high windows and painted arches," explains the Web site. "But three thousand books and an imposing conference table show that this was actually Mr. Hearst's personal library and executive board room" where he could conduct high-level meetings involving his many businesses.

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Ostensibly Hearst Castle's dining room is where all meals were eaten. Hearst and architect Julia Morgan called this grand room the "Refectory," the "term for a monastery dining hall. Its high windows, bright silk banners, and gleaming silver candlesticks convey the atmosphere of a church from the middle ages."

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Dining table

The long dining table, found in the Refectory. This is where all meals were served, whether the cream of Hollywood society was in attendance, or whether it was simply Hearst and his mistress, Davies.

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Palm trees

Anyone who has visited Hearst Castle knows that the visual highlights include huge and beautiful gardens, along with many palm trees.

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South side of the castle

A look at the south side of Casa Grande, which was styled after a Spanish cathedral and was done in Mediterranean Revival style.

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Diving board view

A look down the Roman Pool from atop the stairway.

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Side room

Constructed from 1927 to 1934, the Roman Pool complex is best compared to an ancient Roman bath. Located indoors, its water "was heated as in a tepidarium," explains the Web site. "However, in Hearst's complex there were no hot or cold baths as there were in the ancient complex. The Roman Pool complex was designed to contain an exercise room, sweat baths, a handball court and dressing rooms."

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Off to the side

A look into one of the side areas of the Roman Pool.

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Into the water

"The Roman Pool is decorated from ceiling to floor with one-inch square mosaic tiles," according to the Web site. "These glass tiles, called smalti, are either colored (mainly blue or orange) or are clear with fused gold inside. The intense colors and shimmering gold of the tiles combine to create a breathtaking effect. The designs created by the tiles were developed by muralist Camille Solon. The inspiration for some of these designs came from the 5th Century Mausoleum of Galla Placidia."

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Light flows through glass bricks from above into the Roman Pool, creating a contrast with the indoor area, including this bridge which goes up to a diving platform.

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South Celestial Bedroom

Located in the south tower of the mansion's main building, this is the South Celestial Bedroom, a stunning room with three balconies looking out over world-class views of California's Central Coast, the Pacific Ocean, and the thousands of acres of the Hearst estate. Famed journalist Hedda Hopper was said to have spoken of the bedroom, where she often slept, as "like a jewel box." According to "Hearst Castle," by Victoria Kastner, Hopper also said, "I never knew which meant more to me, the gold room or the view from its windows."

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Rear of Casa Grande

This is the rear of Casa Grande, with a facade featuring 600-year-old columns from Venice, Italy, and windows from France that are hundreds of years old.

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Wine cellar

Hearst Castle features a 10,000-bottle capacity wine cellar that to this day still holds many full bottles. Hearst himself was not fond of overdoing alcohol, and it was said that, at Hearst Castle, "drinks were served, not drunks." However, his mistress, Marion Davies, was known to abuse booze, and it is assumed that much of what was stored in the wine cellar was for her use and that of her friends.

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Wine cellar 2

Another look at the Hearst Castle wine cellar.

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Assembly hall shorter view

The walls of the Assembly Room are lined with walnut paneling, some which is original and some which are replicas, as well as "vivid tapestries, all dating back to the 16th century," the Web site explains. "Neoclassical marble statues brighten the corners and fine bronze sculptures sit atop the large tables in this room of the property. But the jigsaw puzzles, poker table, and comfy overstuffed chairs show that the Assembly Room was also a place for socializing and fun."

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Hearst bedroom

This was Hearst's private bedroom, on the third floor of the man mansion building.

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Hearst bedroom - Casa del Mar

In his 80s, Hearst moved from the main building into one of the three guest houses on the property, Casa del Mar. This is his bedroom in Casa del Mar, which had a total of eight bedrooms and comprises 5,350 square feet.

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Marion Davies bedroom

This is the bedroom of Hearst's mistress, actress Marion Davies, on the third floor of the main mansion building, across the Gothic Study from Hearst's own bedroom.

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Hearst dressing room

This is Hearst's private dressing room, on the third floor of Casa Grande.

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Doge Suite

This is the Doge's Suite in Casa Grande, featuring an 18th century Italian ceiling, and a 17th century Italian bed. "Inspired by the ornate chambers of the Doge's Palace in Venice, this richly decorated suite of two bedrooms and a private sitting room was assigned to Mr. Hearst's special guests," according to the Web site. "They were literally surrounded by museum-quality art, including beautifully painted antique ceilings overhead. An arched marble balcony featuring carved lions -- long a symbol of Venice -- frames views of the eastern mountains."

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Doge Sitting Room

This is the Doge's Sitting Room in Casa Grande.

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This is the kitchen in Casa Grande, featuring this giant rotisserie oven.

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Rest of kitchen

A look at the rest of the Casa Grande kitchen, including this long preparing table.

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This is Hearst's pride and joy: His library. According to the Hearst Castle Web site, "guests were welcome to browse through the...four thousand books. This imposing architectural space also showcases one of Mr. Hearst's most treasured collections: one hundred and fifty ancient Greek vases, all more than two thousand years old. These fragile clay vessels are displayed throughout the room and provide fascinating glimpses of daily life in ancient Greece. At 80 feet in length and filled with precious objects, the library is truly a place to get lost in."

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Tennis court with glass bricks

Above the Roman Pool are these two tennis courts, featuring glass bricks allowing light to flood into the pool below. After working up a sweat on the courts, guests were invited to go downstairs to refresh themselves.

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Under the collonades

A view from under the collonades, alongside the Neptune Pool.

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Front of Casa Grande

A look up at the two towers from the front of Casa Grande.

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Dressing room

There were a set of dressing rooms in the Roman Pool building. Guests would each have one to themselves while they were swimming.

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