On an early morning in San Simeon, Museum Director Cara O’Brien takes in the serenity of the Hearst Castle esplanade. Panoramic views of the Central Coast mingle with the scent of citrus trees and rose gardens and she feels as though she’s stepped into a dreamland.
“It’s kind of like walking on clouds,” O’Brien said. “It’s beautiful up here.”
For over two years the historical monument has been closed to the public due to the pandemic and severe rainstorms that damaged the access road to the castle in early 2021. Following the completion of important restorations to the road, Hearst Castle reopened on May 11.
“Hearst Castle is a state treasure and we are thrilled to reopen this wonder to the public to enjoy in a safe and responsible manner,” California State Parks Director Armando Quintero said in a press release. “We are confident that these once-in-a-lifetime repairs and improvements to the road facility will serve countless generations to come.”
Once the eccentric home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the Hearst Castle estate consists of a 115-room main house plus guesthouses, pools and eight acres of cultivated gardens. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, the castle was host to many notable figures from Winston Churchill to Charlie Chaplin. The castle serves to showcase Hearst’s extensive fine art collection and has since become a world-renowned house museum.
Though the monument may have been missing its usual groups of touring families and curious travelers, museum staff found plenty of projects, both inside and outside of the castle, to span the two year hiatus.
Without having to work around a constant flow of visitors, restoration staff were able to breathe life into deteriorating fixtures that otherwise would have been difficult to restore.
According to California State Parks Historian Amy Hart, these projects included: rehabilitating the teakwood cornice on the main house, which had become a favorite spot for woodpeckers, repairing the mosaic tile walkway near the Roman Pool, which had become worn down by heavy foot traffic, and beginning restorations to the castle’s bell towers.
Then, when the rest of the world turned to virtual spaces for school and work, the museum too followed suit. Castle guides like Tracy Kosinski had to shift from giving in-person tours to meeting a growing demand for online programs.
“The discovery of stories and the ability to talk about them with people from all over the world is definitely something special,” Kosinski said. “Even though we haven’t been seeing people in person we’re still doing our job of interpretation.”
As museum director, O’Brien saw the pandemic as an opportunity to share a deeper knowledge of Hearst Castle with its visitors.
“We’re all different people now. We’ve done so much studying and research and learning more about the collection,” she said. “We did everything that we have always wanted to explore that you just don’t have time to talk about on the tours.”
As staff took the time to look deeper into the architectural history of the monument, stories of under-appreciated artistry arose. The “Unsung Heroes” project turned these stories into a collection of educational videos highlighting the castle’s most important craftspeople.
“We really dug into the stories of who did the gardening,” O’Brien said. “Who did those paintings, you know, who did the ironwork?”
At the center of these craftspeople was visionary architect and long-time collaborator of Hearst, Julia Morgan. Morgan’s tireless dedication to Hearst’s dream and her gift for design are highlighted in a brand-new tour focusing on her life and career.
“She was definitely one of those brains that could hold a ton of information and not just take it in and envision it, but make it a reality,” O’Brien said. “Even if someone gave you a limited amount of stuff and said ‘design one room in the Spanish style using these pieces’ — that would be hard. But they designed this huge space into something phenomenal and eclectic that somehow blends.”
Even being at the Castle every day, O’Brien notices unfamiliar intricacies. She credits Morgan’s incredible attention to detail as part of what keeps visitors returning to the museum.
“You could do the same tour every single time and hear different stories and see different things,” she said. “There’s just so many little details you couldn’t possibly see it all.”
While the story of Hearst Castle is one of wealth and status, O’Brien’s primary goal is finding the personal connections between the museum and its modern day visitors.
“We want to live it,” she said. “We want to feel it, we want to be a part of it and that’s what the draw is.”