SAN SIMEON, CALIF. -- It doesn't take long, wandering behind the scenes among the 38 bedrooms and 41 bathrooms (not counting those in the guest quarters next door), to sense a few differences between your house and Hearst Castle.
The museum accreditation, for instance. The paid staff of 234, not counting the food, gift shop, bus and movie concessions. The conservator in the billiard room delicately applying a brush to an ornate pine ceiling that dates to 15th-century Spain.
"Hearst acquired it, I think, in 1930 or '31," says Gary Hulbert, the conservator, peering down from his perch on a metal scaffold. "And it was installed in 1932."
Yet this storied 127-acre mansion property is becoming less an anomaly every day.
For the evidence, look at Las Vegas, the new North American capital of promiscuously juxtaposed European architectural fantasies. Look at the houses that belong to today's top executives: Bill Gates of Microsoft with his 66,000-square-foot lakefront compound in Medina, Wash.; Larry Ellison of Oracle with his 23-acre Japanese estate near San Francisco; the 123-room French chateau in Los Angeles commissioned by producer Aaron Spelling, who died in 2006.
California has plenty of castles these days.
So maybe it's not surprising that the annual visitor count at Hearst Castle has fallen from more than 1 million in the late 1980s to fewer than 670,000 in 2006-2007. We have plenty of crazy buildings these days, and some of them have even more powerful families behind them.
But are we here, inside California's original over-the-top castle, to grumble that the goblet is half-empty? We are not.
Hearst Castle, donated to the state of California by the Hearst Corp. on Dec. 31, 1957, and opened to public tours six months later, remains the fanciest open house you'll find between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It's a living (and occasionally leaking) testament to what results when a well-traveled, art-intoxicated, house-proud rich guy ignores all common sense, keeps a patient and pliable architect busy through 28 years of design, construction, addition and revision, then leaves it all in the hands of a government agency.
It's a big job just to keep the art safe and the doors open, and that's the drama we're here to spy on.
Just after 6 most mornings, museum custodian Letty Lachance is among a team of six to 10 people who creep up the hill in a van and unlock a basement-level door, make their way through the pantry and kitchen, open the main doors, throw about 100 light switches and get to sweeping, mopping, dusting, vacuuming, waxing and adjusting the rubber mats that tourists will step onto starting at about 8:20.
Gingerly, they work around the tapestries and silver, the ancient Greek amphorae, the 17th-century Persian tiles, the 15th-century Spanish chest, the 14th-century Italian paintings. Outside, four gardeners armed with backpack blowers blast and rake leaves from tour paths, then gather up the night's fallen fruit. Three times a week, they deadhead the roses and other flowers.
Meanwhile, restoration supervisor Bruce Jackson prowls the southern terrace, his gaze traveling back and forth between the tile work underfoot and the teakwood gables being refinished by workers on scaffolding four stories up.
In a minute, he'll swing by a set of greenhouses, reconstructed after 60 years of decay, that are almost ready for plants again.
"It's just like having your own house," says curator Frank Young, "but 1,000 times bigger."
It cost $9.75 million in 2006 to operate the castle, which is open for tours 362 days of the year and available for weddings and bar mitzvahs if you don't mind a bill of four or five figures. Between ticket sales ($20 to $30 per adult), concession income and those events, the castle brought gross revenues of $11 million to the state park system.
Although the castle is public property, it remains a personalized place. "It's not like going through a museum where they've got plastic boxes over everything," says curator Mary Levkoff, who has been organizing a Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition of works collected by Hearst. Moreover, she says, "Every time I go there, I see something I didn't notice before."
She compares it to the castles built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, whose architectural ambitions encouraged composer Richard Wagner in the 19th-century and inspired Walt Disney in the 20th. (Ludwig's Neuschwanstein was the model for Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle.)
As for America's other mansions, none can match the role played by Hearst's in the first half of the 20th century. This is partly because there's no Orson Welles around to make another Citizen Kane. And it might be impossible to match a houseguest roster that starts with actor Charlie Chaplin dining on venison, author P.G. Wodehouse cracking wise about the yaks in the private zoo, comic Harpo Marx turning somersaults in the library and actors David Niven and Cary Grant bemoaning the shortage of booze.