Essay / Misc.

For the Greater Glory of Hearst: Decadent Art

On a hilltop over San Simeon, California, stands the “Hearst Castle,” a set of buildings constructed in the early 20th century by jillionaire William Randolph Hearst. It’s now connected with the California Parks system, and open to the public. I took a tour of it yesterday with some friends and family, and it is remarkable.

We spent most of our time in the Casa Grande, the “big house” that is most castle-like, so we didn’t get to see the numerous lesser dwellings and outbuildings which make the whole facility sprawl out less like a castle and more like a hilltop village. Thrust up into the middle of the blue California sky, the Hearst estate commands numerous panoramic ocean views and, on the day of our visit, sunshine like a perfect day in northern Italy. Before this starts sounding too much like a travel book, I’ll also mention that the site features some kind of vicious pollen (yesterday at least) that left me sneezing, bleary-eyed, and wheezing for the next ten hours.

Hearst had the bankbook and the will to get this thing built, but it was architect Julia Hunt Morgan who had the know-how. I’ll write more about Morgan later this week —it’s because my class is studying her work that I’m stopping at Hearst Castle at all— but what San Simeon shows is that in addition to her skill as an architect and builder, she was also an accomplished civil engineer. To build on that terrain, she had to solve countless problems of engineering and site development. She also had to build her own roads just to get the equipment to the site. She channeled in water, and used it to run a hydroelectric plant (one of the interesting features of the Casa Grande is that it’s quite similar to Old World castles, but was designed with modern plumbing and wiring built in seamlessly from the beginning). When the art treasures began to arrive, the local pier was too small for the big European boats, so she designed a new one. When there was nowhere to store the art, she built, down on the level ground, a concrete warehouse in the Spanish mission style which is a worthy and interesting structure in its own right. The list goes on and on. The way she uses reinforced concrete up here is amazing, whether she lets it be itself, or disguises it as wood and brick. For an architect/artist/builder/engineer as gifted as Morgan, it took a project as grand, and pockets as deep, as Hearst Castle to showcase the full range of her abilities.

On the other hand, there is something about Hearst Castle which also brings out the worst in Julia Morgan. As a designer, she practices academic eclecticism, which means that she’s studied all kinds of architectural styles, and freely chooses which style she wants to employ in a given project. She can build like anybody she wants to, and is a bit of a chameleon from one project to another. In most of Morgan’s work, she keeps to a limited palette and avoids jarring one style up against another, or jumping from one to another. But in San Simeon, there were no limits. You could always add another room, tack on another tower, dig another pool, or make a whole different house a stone’s throw away. I’m not fluent in the language of architecture, but there are places in Hearst Castle where you can’t tell if you’re in Athens, ancient Egypt, Hadrian’s Villa, a Hollywood epic about the last days of Pompeii, Spain, Morocco, or Milan. Why is that 15th century stone bust of St. Peter pasted onto the front of a miniaturized gothic cathedral topped by mission-style towers? And what is with the baroquococo riot of ornament that piles up like lumpy wedding cake frosting beside the long, clean, Spartan lines of marble terraces? What should you expect to see after you’ve seen arts-and-crafts bathrooms inside Regency period bedrooms connected to a billiards room with 15th-century ceilings brought over from England? A private movie theater, of course. Maybe it was my allergies, but I think I hallucinated that Jane Austen was wearing a flapper dress and whipping Chaucer at pool in a Cecil B. DeMille movie. Everything’s wonderful, but piled up together it’s what we call “a bit much.”

That’s the other Morgan weakness that comes out in San Simeon: the dazzle factor. In Morgan’s other work, she likes dramatic flourishes but can be restrained and make use of deliberate understatement. At Hearst Castle, she makes one grand overstatement after another. Pools are skirted by colonnades at the edges of gardened terraces beside palaces giving way to yada yada you get the idea. And though Morgan is always fond of ornament, here she ornaments everything to the gilt. If one flourish is good, why not five? If this makes guests say “wow,” maybe two of them will make guest say “double wow.”

There’s an amusing letter exchange between Hearst and Morgan, which suggests how the design got out of control. Morgan had thought of a way to heighten the initial impact of seeing Hearst Castle, by having cars drop guests at the steps before going on to a separate parking area. She summarized, “a strikingly noble and saississant effect would be impressed upon everyone on arrival.” “Saississant” apparently means “gripping,” and is a word Morgan probably picked up while studying at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in France. Hearst replied, “Heartily approve those steps. I certainly want that saississant effect. I don’t know what it is but I think we ought to have at least one such on the premises.”

I don’t know what it is, but we ought to have one. And why? To make folks say Wow. And what are they saying Wow about? William Randolph Hearst, the amazing fellow who had all this built. Call my architect and have her put some more classical stuff in here. Get the European auction houses to send over some more old things, we need to loot the past to glorify the modern millionaire. I want Zeus over the mantelpiece and Jesus on the cross at that end of the big room. Let’s call the dining room a refectory, like monks eat in. I can afford anything, and Julia Morgan can build anything. Let’s make this room like the nave of a church, put in a real rood screen from some old European church that’s strapped for cash and willing to sell, and invite celebrities to eat here. If you think about it, after all, it’s still a church, just devoted to the service of a different god.

My point (and I do have one) is not that Hearst is an irreverent egomaniac, devoted to no cause higher than himself. My point is that his devotion to such an inferior good is bad for art. I think it pushed Julia Hunt Morgan’s work over the line from academic eclecticism with a taste for ornamentation into outright decadence. “Decadence” is literally a falling off, a decline from a classical period. Morgan’s total architectural body of work might not be exactly classical, but I don’t find it decadent, except for here at Hearst Castle. Here, all her powers are summoned forth and called into service, but they are in service of a puny godling, a modern millionaire. The message they underline is a message too meager to bear the beauty of these buildings. The message is: Hearst is great, wow, what a place, what a guy.

Great art needs to be evoked by a great cause. Julia Morgan had powers of creativity which should have been called forth by something so far above her that she could have poured forth perfect buildings one after another without ever attaining the goal. Instead, the greatest commission she ever worked on was devoted to something too tiny, too self-referential, too earthbound. As a result, all the force of her genius ran toward decadence, and no matter how hard she worked she could only dig herself deeper into that decadence. The spectacle of Hearst Castle is for me not an exclamation point, but a question mark: what beauty might have come into the world if the powers of Julia Hunt Morgan had been called forth by a greater commission?

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