As of May 11, tourist-packed motor coaches are once again making the winding ascent up to La Cuesta Encantada – “The Enchanted Hill,” the Central Coast of California’s most magnetizing and majestic tourist attraction-slash-architectural landmark (sorry, Madonna Inn) and the best-known work of Julia Morgan, the trailblazing Bay Area architect and reinforced concrete pioneer who, in 1904, became the first woman to obtain an architecture license in California.
Better known as Hearst Castle, the historic San Luis Obispo County estate suspended public tours in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic; even as pandemic restrictions eventually lifted across California and beyond, Hearst Castle remained off-limits to the public following a historic rainstorm in January 2021 that led to culvert failures along the upper portion of site’s main access road. Now, a section of the storm-damaged roadway has now been reconstructed and California State Parks has reopened Hearst Castle to visitors following its more than two-year closure, which included 10 months of emergency road repair work.
Built between 1919 and 1947 for publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, the opulent hilltop villa first opened for public tours as a historic house-museum in 1958 following the Hearst Corporation’s donation of the 127-acre property to the State of California. Today, the grounds are part of the California State Parks-operated Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument. The storied site is both a U.S. National Historic Landmark and a California Historical Landmark.
“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,” said California State Parks Director Armando Quintero in a statement announcing Hearst Castle’s highly anticipated reopening. “We are confident that these once-in-a-lifetime repairs and improvements to the road facility will serve countless generations to come.”
As detailed by California State Parks, roughly 22,000 annual tour bus trips were made along the main access road prior to the pandemic. Stretching a total of 5 miles through rugged terrain rising more than 1,500 feet above the Pacific Ocean and Highway 1, the final 2.5-mile stretch of roadway “navigates rocky outcroppings and steep canyons by splitting into separate, narrower, one-directional sections for uphill and downhill traffic.” The estimated $13.7 million repair project, which focused on the upper section of the road, involved constructing new concrete retaining walls and restoring some of the existing historic stone walls; replacing the road’s storm-marred, 1920s-era clay pipe culverts with modern counterparts able to withstand future deluges; and tearing up the old asphalt roadway and recycling it into a “thicker, stronger” new roadway as part of a full-depth reclamation process.
In addition to a new and resilient access road, the reopening of Hearst Castle provides the historic site with an opportunity to shine an even brighter spotlight on the Ecole de Beaux Arts-trained Morgan, who has historically taken somewhat of a backseat to William Randolph Hearst (and the estate’s many notable Hollywood habitués during the Roaring Twenties) in public-facing programming. Morgan is now the subject of a new in-depth tour that focuses “on rarely seen areas of Hearst Castle that highlight her gift for design, and photographic displays of architectural drawings, family photos, and personal items.” The timing of the launch of the Julia Morgan Tour at Hearst Castle is opportune as it follows the March release of Victoria Kastner’s Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect from Chronicle Books. The new biography bills itself as “the first volume to thoroughly examine Julia’s private life as well as her career.”
As noted by the San Luis Obispo Tribune, the new two-hour tour was initially set to launch in 2020 as part of a series of centennial celebrations at the palatial Spanish Colonial Revival compound.
While Hearst Castle is Morgan’s most prominent and ambitious completed work (including its main residence known as La Casa Grande, Hearst Castle encompasses four buildings spread across 80,000 square feet and features 58 bedrooms, 60 bathrooms, and one Lady Gaga-famous swimming pool), she designed more than 700 other buildings over her prolific career. Many of Morgan’s high-profile commissions, both before and after Hearst Castle, were as William Randolph Hearst’s principal architect although not exclusively so. In addition to projects for Hearst and his family, Morgan’s other major works include numerous YWCA facilities in California and beyond, the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, and several buildings on the campus of Mills College in Oakland, including its iconic clock tower.
Morgan, an intensely private person, died a recluse in 1957 at the age of 85 in her hometown of San Francisco. In 2014 she was posthumously awarded the AIA Gold Medal, the first woman architect to receive the prestigious honor. Five years later, the New York Times published a much-belated obituary for Morgan as part of its Overlooked series.
In addition to a new access road and dedicated tour celebrating Morgan’s indelible legacy, the reopening of Hearst Castle will help to resuscitate the tourism-dependent economy of San Simeon, the small coastal town where the estate is located. With its main attraction closed to visitors over the past two years, local businesses hope that the reopening will provide the town and greater Central Coast region with the economic shot in the arm that it so desperately needs. “Hearst Castle is not only a fascinating place to visit, it serves as a backbone to the North County’s economy,” remarked State Senator John Laird in California State Parks’ press release announcing the May 11 reopening.
Ticketing and tour information for Hearst Castle, which is reopening with admission fees $3 lower than before the pandemic, can be found here. For those whose summer travel plans include the superlatively scenic stretch of California coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco with a stopover in San Simeon, advanced reservations are highly recommended.