William Randolph Hearst’s Monastery

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It was at this point that Santa Maria de Ovila was discovered by an expatriate American art dealer, Arthur Byne, who had for years been selling European bric-a-brac to Americans, especially to William Randolph Hearst. Admittedly Santa Maria de Ovila was larger than the usual objet d’art, but Byne knew that size—and cost—were no impediment when it came to gratifying the Hearstian taste, and he naturally was interested in the commission that the sale of an $85,000 monastery would produce. Since he represented the Hispanic Society of America, he also may have thought that Hearst’s pocketbook offered the best way of preserving this decrepit but interesting piece of architecture.

Byne did some graceful perspective sketches of Santa Maria de Ovila, which for some reason he called Mountolive, and in late 1930 he sent them off to Hearst; very promptly the reply came back: Mr. Hearst was delighted and wanted to buy the entire monastery and have it transported to California. It should be added that such a request was not so astonishing as it might seem today; Hearst already had bought some gigantic architectural pieces—ceilings, a Gothic fireplace, doorways, and the like—to decorate his houses, especially the colossal castle at San Simeon. He also had bought another monastery from Byne in the twenties, and it was then sitting in a warehouse in the Bronx.

Despite the dire financial news of 1930, Byne’s timing was excellent, for Hearst felt that he had plenty of money and was growing restless as San Simeon neared completion. The next project that he had in mind was an even bigger house in the forests of far northern California, where his mother had built a large hunting lodge called Wyntoon. Wyntoon had burned down, but Hearst planned to replace it with something truly stupendous—a medieval castle. It was to front on the McCloud River and rise in commanding towers and bastions to eight stories of pure fairy-tale splendor. It would have sixty-one bedrooms on six floors, and the eighth floor, at the top of the tallest tower, would contain only a solitary, round study for “the Chief,” who could gaze upon his own domain and the thousands of acres of virgin forest surrounding it. But in late 1930 the Chief was a bit irritated, having just learned that the Spanish medieval buildings that were to have provided most of the grand ornament tor the cavernous first floor were not available. So when Arthur Byne found Santa Maria de Ovila, he knew just whom to write. Hearst snapped it up and instructed his architect, Julia Morgan, to use it—a piece here, a piece there—for the main floor of the new Wyntoon Castle.

 

Miss Morgan had no idea what it looked like, however, so she sent her associate Walter Steilberg to Spain to measure and survey the buildings, to design a packing method, and to help Byne oversee the demolition. Steilberg set out with a full set of Wyntoon drawings and a variety of American packing and strapping devices—so great a variety, in fact, that as he wrote Julia Morgan from the ship, “My stateroom looks more or less like a machinery exhibit.”

 
 
 
 
 

Steilberg was a charming and extremely competent architect and engineer, and Byne was delighted to have him on the site. The problems they faced were formidable. The monastery was remote; the work had to be done largely by hand; the problems with packing and transportation were complex; and Spanish politics were very unsettled.

Politics turned out to be the least of the problems. In early 1931 Spain had a largely ineffective monarchy and severe economic depression. Byne used both these factors to aid his various treasure hunts, easily convincing the impoverished government that his export work helped the economy, though it quite openly violated Spanish historic preservation laws. The removal of Santa Maria de Ovila was strictly illegal; as Byne wrote, “it is forbidden to ship a single antique stone from Spain to-day—even the size of a baseball, ” in spite of which he was in the process of exporting an entire monastery in large crates. But the demolition, packing, and shipping employed more than a hundred men at its peak, and the authorities simply looked the other way. Byne worked fast because he worried that this cozy arrangement would disappear if the government disappeared, and his fears for the government were well founded.

In the Spanish municipal elections of April, 1931, the monarchists did so badly that the King realized the jig was up. “The Sunday elections,” he wrote, “clearly show me that I don’t have my people’s love,” and he packed his bags.