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On a picturesque coastal camp site, a Hearst heir wanted to build a vacation home. He hired Julia Morgan.

California's first female architect spent more than two decades designing and building what would be known as the Hearst castle at San Simeon

“All About Julia Morgan” by Phyllis J. Perry.

Phyllis J. Perry is an author of works of fiction and nonfiction for children and adults. She grew up in northern California and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley.

She received her doctorate degree at the University of Colorado Boulder. Perry worked in various capacities for the Boulder Valley Schools before retiring and devoting full time to writing. She has published 93 books and won the Colorado Authors League Lifetime Achievement Award.  Among her most recent award-winning books is a biography of the famed architect, “All About Julia Morgan.” She and her husband reside in Boulder.

The following is an excerpt from “All About Julia Morgan.”

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


Colorado Authors League award winner for Young Adult Fiction

When William Randolph Hearst went to see Julia Morgan in her San Francisco offices in 1919, he explained that he wanted her to build him a small vacation house near San Simeon on a piece of land that his father had purchased in 1865.

San Simeon is located on the California coast about midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. William Randolph Hearst, his wife, Millicent, and their five sons often camped on this hill near the small fishing village. Instead of always roughing it, Hearst said he was ready to have a comfortable vacation house built there.

William Randolph Hearst certainly had the money to build anything he wished. On her death, Phoebe Hearst left her only child all of the money and land that her husband George had acquired. In addition to his inheritance, William Randolph Hearst had added to the Hearst wealth with money he had earned through building up a newspaper empire. His parents gave him the San Francisco Examiner in 1887. He gradually acquired several other papers, including the Los Angeles Examiner.

Upon the death of his mother, Hearst not only became one of the wealthiest men in the world, inheriting money and land, but he also inherited his mother’s famous collection of paintings, statues, and tapestries. He needed some place to show them off. If indeed Hearst ever planned to build a simple bungalow at San Simeon, he quickly gave up that idea. And just as quickly, Julia realized that instead of designing a vacation bungalow at San Simeon, she was really being asked to build a museum or castle.

Author Phyllis J. Perry.

The San Simeon project along with all the other projects she was working on was a tremendous work load for Julia. Once the San Simeon project was underway, she continued to work in her office in San Francisco during weekdays, but on three weekends a month, she left her office on Friday afternoon and traveled about 200 miles to San Luis Obispo by train. From there, she took a 50 mile taxi ride to San Simeon. The same driver took her every week. In fact, Julia got to know him so well, that she eventually designed a play house for the driver’s little girl.

Julia would work at San Simeon until Sunday night, and then go back to her office via taxi and train the same way she had come. While at San Simeon, she sometimes met with Hearst, listened to what he wanted, and drew designs. When Hearst was away, he sent her detailed letters suggesting countless ideas for the project. Julia saw her job as one of bringing her client’s dream to reality. Hearst made it clear that one of the most important things to be considered at San Simeon was the wonderful view from the top of this hill.

Julia drew up plans for a main house where the Hearst family would live, three guest houses, a rose garden, and a pool. All of these had wonderful hilltop views. Hearst wanted everything to be linked together by walks and gardens. Hearst gave this spot a Spanish Name, La Cuesta Encantada, the Enchanted Hill. In speaking of this place, however, he simply called it “the ranch.” Today, many people call it Hearst Castle.

One of the first things Julia had to do was design a winding five mile road from the shore of San Simeon up to the building site. A wharf was built to handle sea shipments. Horses, wagons, and trucks were used to move building supplies and art treasures up the hill to the building site. Warehouses were designed and built to hold the materials until they were needed. All kinds of workmen were hired, and they all reported to Julia, who held them to a very high standard of work.

At first, the laborers lived in tents at San Simeon, but Julia eventually built simple group homes for them near the warehouses at the top of the hill. For a few of the most important workers and their families, she built individual homes in the village. Erecting the buildings at San Simeon was hard work, and sometimes workmen finished a project only to see it torn out and re-built in a slightly different way because Hearst had come up with a “new idea.” This discouraged workers, and some of them quit. In order to try to keep her workmen happy, Julia hired a cook to prepare their meals and even arranged for a movie to be shown them each week for entertainment.

Over the next few years, wherever he was, Hearst kept in touch with Julia and her progress at San Simeon. He continued to send her letters and telegrams suggesting ideas and changes for his house. Most of the ideas were his own; but some were from his wife. These messages numbered in the thousands. Sometimes there were letters of complaint. One time when he felt that the chimney was not working properly in the main house, Hearst wrote to Julia: “We have the unsatisfying alternative of freezing to death without a fire or smothering to death from smoke.” On another occasion, Hearst expressed his opinion about the Great Hall, writing, “The wind flows in through the cracks and the crevices until the rugs flap on the floors.”

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Hearst bought arts and antiques at auctions. He hired agents to help him search out other art treasures. And he sent all of these to his new home at San Simeon. They arrived in freight cars. It would be up to Julia to decide which and where and how to incorporate these into the new house.

The three guest houses, which were placed slightly lower than the main house so as not to obstruct the view, were built first. Julia was closely involved in the supervision of the construction, often walking out on scaffolding to get a good look. Unfortunately for Julia and the construction crew, Hearst continued to frequently change his mind. He once had a fireplace torn out after it was built only to have it torn out again and put back exactly where it was originally. For Hearst, it seemed that tearing down was a natural part of building up. Julia, continuing with her long held belief that her job was to please the client, put up with all these changes and suggestions.

Each of the three guest houses at San Simeon was given a Spanish name. Casa del Mar had a view of the sea, Casa del Monte had a view of the mountains, and Casa del Sol faced the setting sun. These houses were built in Spanish style with white walls and red tile roofs. Each contained ten to eighteen bedrooms and a grand sitting room. Each was elaborately furnished. These small houses had no dining rooms, just bedrooms and sitting rooms. Guests ate with their host in the main building.

Casa del Monte was ready for Hearst and his family to use in the summer of 1921. By 1924, all three guest houses were completed, and construction had begun on the main house, which was called La Casa Grande, the big house. They decided on a tower for this building based on the Gothic Cathedral of Santa Maria in Ronda, Spain. In typical fashion, Hearst soon expanded this to two towers.

When Morgan thought that the main house was nearly finished, Hearst suddenly asked that they add another story. As always, Julia complied with her client’s wishes. By 1925, although the main house was not complete, a suite of rooms in it was finished and Hearst stayed there on his visits.

From his original request of a “bungalow” on a hill, something else had grown. There are 127 rooms in the main building and guesthouses. There are fifty-eight bedrooms, forty-nine baths, eighteen sitting rooms, and two libraries. All are furnished with antiques and valuable objects of art.

Hearst used La Casa Grande to entertain in high style. His guests called him “The Chief” and were happy for an invitation to visit “the ranch.” Floodlights lit up the building, so that as guests wound up the hill, it looked as if they were approaching a fairytale castle. Guests included such well known people as Calvin Coolidge, Winston Churchill, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Amelia Earhart, and Charles Lindbergh. And occasionally, Julia Morgan dined there and sat directly across the table from her host.

In addition to the buildings and the formal gardens, Julia was in charge of the design for the surrounding land. There was an orchard, vegetable gardens, and a poultry farm to supply his guests with fresh food. None of this was easy to achieve on a rocky hillside. Sometimes holes had to be blasted in rock and filled with soil before a fruit tree could be planted.

Hearst was always buying something new and insisting that Julia use it somewhere at San Simeon. He bought the front of a Roman temple and wanted it used near a swimming pool. To meet this request, Julia built what many consider to be the most beautiful swimming pool in the world, The Neptune Pool. Because it had to be built on a steep hillside, Morgan had to first support it with concrete beams and a concrete retaining wall. The pool was lined in white marble, and at the end of the pool stood the front of the Roman temple.

This pool proved so popular with guests that Hearst then asked that a second indoor pool be built. This time, Julia designed and built a Roman pool lined with blue and gold Italian glass tiles. She located it beneath the tennis courts.

In 1924, Hearst acquired forty buffalo from Montana and announced that he wanted a zoo at San Simeon. Julia had to design closed-in grottoes for the dangerous animals. Signs on the estate said, “Animals Have Right of Way.” By 1939, Hearst had given his wild animals to the San Diego and San Francisco Zoos, but smaller animals, such as exotic goats and miniature deer, remained to roam on the property.

Hearst also had an interest in smaller animals. He kept fifty dachshunds in a kennel which Julia Morgan designed. A favorite dog, named Helena, mingled with the guests in the Big House. Hearst also had a soft spot for mice. He would have his servants set non-lethal traps to catch them, and then the mice were set free outdoors the next morning. One mouse visited so often that Hearst said he recognized it and nick-named the mouse Mortimer.

Although Hearst had continuing plans for San Simeon, expenses were high and Hearst sometimes ran low on funds. As he grew older and in poor health, his sons increasingly had control of Hearst Corporation funds and were unwilling to continue to spend them on San Simeon. Payrolls were missed. Certainly Julia did not make a fortune while working at San Simeon. For her more than twenty years of work for Hearst, she made about $71,000 dollars.

Because of financial problems and health, plans for other improvements at San Simeon were abandoned. When the building accounts for San Simeon were finally closed in 1945, both wings of the main building were still unfinished. Ideas to build an English Cottage and a Chinese Cottage never materialized. Hearst left San Simeon for the last time in 1947, leaving only a skeleton crew of maintenance workers to stay on.

— Buy “All About Julia Morgan” at BookBar

— Interview with author Phyllis J. Perry