- 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
Hearst was not a deadbeat, and Arthur Byne knew it, but Byne’s problem was cash flow. As he wrote in May, “Apart from the monastery I have laid out so much for you that I am stripped of all capital and must, perforce, carry along in hand to mouth fashion. ” Oddly enough Byne’s problem was exactly like his client’s, for “hand to mouth” is the very phrase that Hearst’s biographer, W. A. Swanberg, uses to describe Hearst’s own existence. Although his income was gigantic…estimates run as high as $15,000,000 a year—Hearst was still perpetually broke. He couldn’t pay Byne and he sometimes couldn’t pay a bill of fifty or a hundred dollars because he really didn’t have the money at the moment. He spent everything.
Castle building and the allied pastime of art collecting were two of Hearst’s principal financial drains, and Wyntoon was to be the ultimate Hearst fantasy. Those who have seen the excesses of San Simeon might find it hard to believe in something even more flamboyant, but Wyntoon would have put San Simeon in the shade. In creating all this grandeur, the role of Santa Maria de Ovila was crucial.
As the letters, photos, and drawings from Walter Steilberg came into her San Francisco office, Julia Morgan began to fit all the pieces into her design. The cloister, which originally faced an open courtyard, would be used as the walls of a vast library. The refectory would become an “armory.” The chapter house would form an ornate reception hall, and the sacristy ceiling was to cover the “lobby.” (Hotel terminology occasionally creeps into the drawings, and the effect of Wyntoon is, in fact, very close to some of the railroad-built resorts, like Quebec’s Chateau Frontenac.) Another monastic building was first considered for a Bratskeller and later for a breakfast room. Practical considerations were not forgotten: Steilberg asked Byne to go out to the monastery’s still-standing bodega and sing or talk loudly to test the echoes, since they were thinking of this large wine-storage barn for a movie theater.
The problem room was the chapel itself, the major building of the original monastery, the one that Saint Martin had waited to consecrate in September of 1213. In an early scheme it was used as a living room, but the long, narrow dimensions of the space seem to have been disturbing. Even with fireplaces here and there it looked too much like a bowling alley. The final solution was breathtaking—the chapel was to become an enormous swimming pool. It was to be 150 feet long, complete with diving board, and with the two side chapels converted into a lounge and women’s toilet. Around the apse there was to be a very wide deck with a southern exposure, filled to a depth of two or three feet with sand, so that one could sunbathe on “the beach” and go into the chapel for a swim.
Most of the monastery was to be used on the first floor of the castle, but not as weight-bearing structure, for Wyntoon was of course much, much bigger than the original Santa Maria de Ovila. The medieval masonry would merely have been applied to the downstairs walls, like very thick wallpaper. Realizing this, Steilberg at one point suggested slicing the stones to leave only a relatively thin veneer; rather than dealing with walls that were up to seven feet thick, the builders then would have only six inches of stone to fasten to the structure. But Hearst liked to have things authentic and rejected the idea.
The castle itself would show almost none of the Spanish stone on the exterior—only a few windows. Part of the reason was practical; the stone would have to be treated to stand the damp weather. But another strong reason may have been the deeply ironic fact that the Cistercians, who built Santa Maria de Ovila, had a strong aversion to any sort of ornament, and their buildings were almost forbiddingly plain. Hearst, whose taste ran decidedly toward the ornate, wanted none of their severity. From the outside, Wyntoon would look more like a fantasy by Maxfield Parrish than anything related to Spanish monasticism. From its lower gate on the river it was to rise eight or nine stories in an irregular and utterly fantastic aggregation of arches, peaked roofs, towers, and ramparts. To a boater on the rushing McCloud River who suddenly glimpsed this castle through the trees, Wyntoon would have looked like something that dropped in from another country, another era, even another planet.
But it was all a dream. Even as the medieval cargo, which came in eleven snips, arrived in San Francisco, financial forces were closing in on Hearst. Although he steadfastly refused to recognize it, William Randolph Hearst, along with the rest of the country in the early thirties, was running out of money. His financial advisers were trying frantically to put the brakes on Hearst’s spending, and the first estimates on Wyntoon came in at over $50,000,000. So the castle was canceled, and Hearst consoled himself with a picturesque and more affordable group of houses, built to resemble a Bavarian village.