- Historic Sites
William Randolph Hearst’s Monastery
He could build castles at his whim, but the ancient home of a small band of monks defeated him
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
Thus began the ill-fated Second Republic, and Byne had a whole new government to deal with. As he said, however, “they have more important problems than to bother about the demolition of an old ruin.” His workers nailed the red flag of revolution to the church they were illegally tearing down and went right on working. The new government was not much better organized than the old. When an order was issued to protect monasteries and convents from anticlerical mobs, the benighted civil service in Madrid used an eighteenth-century list of religious houses to draw up marching orders. Byne found himself explaining to a detachment of the ferocious Guardia Civil that they had arrived ninety-six years too late to protect the monks; there was a lot of shrugging and gesturing, but the soldiers went away.
Demolition and transportation presented greater problems. Farmers and laborers recruited from surrounding villages began clearing away rubble, debris, and manure, while other workmen built a series of scaffolds that fit snugly inside the arches so that when the keystones were removed, the whole building wouldn’t crash to the floor. As each wall or vault was taken down, the Spanish foreman made careful scale drawings and assigned each block of stone a number. These numbers were written in his spidery hand on every stone in the drawing, and also were painted in red on the backsides of the stones themselves.
While the buildings were being demolished, a World War I trench railway somehow was produced and laid down to the river’s edge. On the far shore Byne had another crew building a private road that led to the main highway. Connecting road and railway was an ingenious ferry, a large raft that was kept on course by an overhead cable set at such an angle that the flow of the river helped propel the loaded barge over to the other side. Laborers then hauled it back, hand over hand on the cable. While they were going back for another load, a crane lifted the stones up to the top of the bluff where Byne’s road ended, and they were sent off to Madrid on trucks.
Generally the work went well. Steilberg and Byne both commented on the excellence of the Spanish workers and especially of their foreman, Antonio Gomez. The men were skilled and careful and above all glad to have the work. There were no accidents despite the great danger everywhere: Steilberg later said that “every time you went in those buildings you stood a fair chance of being killed.” The buildings, however, turned out to be in better shape than their dilapidated appearance indicated. Byne comments in one letter that “the Chapter House was a joy to take down. Every stone was perfectly formed and absolutely intact. Furthermore the quality of the stone is superb, hard, and with clean cut profiles.” The buildings came down so quickly that stone started to pile up, and Byne, still worried about the political climate, began a day-and-night operation. He placed torches all along the railway tracks and riverbank and wrote back to California that “it was all quite dramatic and gave the impression of the Crossing of the Styx.”
As with any project of such a scale, however, there were constant headaches. The road turned swampy in the winter rains. The three Spanish excelsior factories could not keep pace with the crating operation. The old monarchy toppled. Gomez was laid up with a series of vicious boils under the arms. The river dried up and a bridge had to be built. Byne dealt with these vexations day by day, and the work somehow got done. But there was one problem that Byne could not control, and it drove him nearly wild. William Randolph Hearst hated paying bills.
When the project began, Hearst already owed Byne more than $32,000 for earlier purchases, and Byne was very nervous about the cash situation. On December 29 he cabled back to California, apparently without irony, “THIRTY-TWO THOUSAND OWED ACCORDING TO STATEMENT SENT DECEMBER TWELFTH HAPPY NEW YEAR-BYNE.” He started the project anyway, but on January 27 we find him complaining that the $25,000 just received is not enough. On January 29 he writes to Hearst, “I, like yourself, must work on a budget.” On February 17 he threatens to hold up the work. On February 20 he begs for another $25,000 and writes, “I depend on your sense of fairness not to disappoint me.” On March 10 he becomes positively truculent: “Mr. Hearst, in a week’s time I shall have 100 men working. I have done everything humanly possible on my part; you in turn have fallen down lamentably on your part....If through lack of funds, I am forced to stop the work at Mountolive, I would never attempt to resume it.”
On March 16 Byne has received another $25,000 but needs more and says that he now will insist on advance payment. On April 4 he says that the entire program will collapse if Hearst doesn’t pay his bills. On April 8 he seems to have reached the end of his tether: “All this [work] means thousands of dollars of expense, Mr. Hearst, and when Saturday night comes I can’t put anybody off with the excuse that there is no money at hand (as you say to me). I admire you for the ideas you have, and collaborate enthusiastically, but it is only fair that you pay the musicians. ” This piece of eloquence brought in another $25,000, but two weeks later Byne was out of money again—and so it went all year.