Monday, September 17, 2007

30; Hearst castle

So when I build my college I always assumed there was going to be a menagerie somewhere on the grounds. The purpose of this collected assortment of beasts was to be of use to the biological and environmental science departments for study. When I draw up my Bic pen blueprints I had the animals scattered up the side of a hill leading up to the college, through which a switchbacking road leads up to the main gate.

Think of it: You're driving up to a college you've heard is one of the best in the country, going up a windy road up a hill, and voila! Crowned cranes and wombats lumber by next to small African gazelle. The cry of a peacock and the roll of a kookaburra's laugh sound as you enter the gates. A lammergier swoops down in front of your car. Welcome to Jurassic Park.

I started wondering where I got the idea for this cinematic entrance, when it occurred to me that it was stolen. Twice as a child I visited a place in which you make the same entrance, only the fauna consisted of large antelopes and some zebras as well, if I remember correctly. The place didn't need grandiose gates at the top of the hill, the view of what was atop it was spectacular enough.

Hearst Castle was built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst, and is located in the otherwise devoid San Simeon, California. The front of the main house looks like a Spanish cathedral and is modestly named 'La Casa Grande'. It has a Greek baths outdoors and a Roman baths indoors, each of whose tile works was expertly done as to create an optical illusion. It boasts 56 bedrooms, one of the first private movie theatres, and, of course, the world's largest private zoo.

The estate is a blend of Italianate influences and Art Deco. Whole sections of the house were brought from intact from Europe. The only palaces I know of that rival it in splendour are Blenheim Palace and Versailles. (Or so I'm told. I've not been to France.) In the United States there can be no more opulent dwelling.

William Hearst was famously lampooned, and the Castle with him, in Welles' 'Citizen Kane'. The man had such a profound impact on American history it's hard to imagine him not being the focus of one of the greatest films in our canon. His whole life was so over the top, he was the closest thing to royalty we had at the time, and he knew and embraced that feeling.

For me it's a pilgrimage. I go back every six years or so, and I hope to go back again soon. Generally I don't revisit places, because I figure there are more things to be seen out there that are worthy of my time. But Hearst Castle holds a special place in my heart, and I need to go back to remind myself of the awe of the 'enchanted hill'. It's something out of a picture book, it doesn't seem quite real, the blend of old-world and California style, (architect: CA's Julia Morgan). If you were anybody during the thirties and forties you wanted to be invited to the Castle. It was Camelot before the Kennedys.

Maybe when I build my college it won't have the menagerie. Perhaps its best if we, instead of copying, create anew. Anyone can go and visit Hearst Castle if they want to and have $20. But my college, maybe, should be something unique. The world's first sustainable college? That, I think, would be impressive. Even more so than wombats.

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