- 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
The monastery arrived in San Francisco on schedule, but it was soon apparent that Hearst had no particular use for it, so he had it put in storage. He now owned two medieval monasteries, both in crates, both in warehouses, one in New York and the other in San Francisco. The only major difference was that in New York he also owned the warehouse, so that he didn’t have the obvious reminder of monthly storage bills. This difference, however, became important, for by the late thirties Hearst’s finances had so dwindled that there was talk of actual bankruptcy, and the storage fee—more than $60,000 had already been paid—began to look much greater than before.
Santa Maria de Ovila was a classic white elephant. It took up 28,000 square feet of warehouse and was totally useless. It was clearly time to sell, but there was probably not a sane man in the country who would have paid a reasonable price for it in 1939 when Hearst’s agents began looking for buyers. Months turned into years with no buyer in sight, and as Julia Morgan rather plaintively remarked in a letter, “It will mean a lot to Mr. Hearst if this stone can be disposed of.” In late 1940 Hearst began to consider giving it away. He flirted with Los Angeles and with the University of California but was persuaded by civic leader Herbert Fleishhacker to sell it for a token payment to the city of San Francisco, where it would be re-erected in Golden Gate Park as a museum of medieval art. In August, 1941, the city paid Hearst $25,000, and allocated another $5,000 to cover moving the crates out to the park and building some sheds and canvas covers to protect them. The city did not, however, allocate any money to build the monastery.
Up to this point the story of Santa Maria de Ovila is strange but mildly comic, except to the Spanish who mourned the departure of what one called “the glorious ashes of our past.” Just after the move to Golden Gate Park, however, the stones suffered a considerable blow when their packing cases caught fire. “Piles of burning boxes were pulled over and down by the Fire Department, many hurled over a hundred and fifty feet,” Julia Morgan reported mournfully. Naturally some of the stones were injured, and many of the cases, with their vital numbers, were burned up. The park workmen had to gingerly excavate and laboriously renumber all the burned stones, which took nearly a year.
For the next sixteen years these thousands of crates stood in the back service area of the de Young Museum while museum officials tried various tactics to raise money for the reconstruction. They even went so far as appointing a “curator” of this pile of boxes and engaging an architect- Julia Morgan. Once more she sat down with the numbered drawings, and once more she plowed through the stone-by-stone inventories, this time to design a compact and unostentatious series of galleries that would incorporate the medieval buildings in approximately their original arrangement. It was a long jump from the diving board on the altar to the hushed restraint of an art museum, but Miss Morgan’s second design for the stones was as sober as her first design was riotous, and the second one undoubtedly more pleasing to her taste for understatement.
In 1954 a syndicate of Cincinnati businessmen did on the East Coast what no one could seem to do in California: they bought, shipped, and re-erected the first of Hearst’s monasteries, the one that had been stored in the Bronx. It cost them about a million and a half dollars and was not done as a museum but as a tourist attraction (“STEP BACK INTO TIME 800 YEARS!”) in North Miami Beach, Florida, where it still is today. The man who coordinated the Florida reconstruction wrote expectantly to the museum authorities in San Francisco and offered them his experience, but a kind of fatalistic lethargy seems to have settled on the California project. The architect was by then a very old woman; the “curator” had gone off to the war and never come back to San Francisco; there had been a civic wrangle over placement of the medieval museum that somewhat dissipated support for reconstruction; and the museum director who had pushed the project energetically in the early forties was probably just as weary of that odd rockpile in 1955 as Hearst had been in 1939.
The future of the monastery was more decisively determined in 1958, when the packing cases once more caught fire. This time they burned for more than three hours, and the newspaper reported that “the edifice...can never be put together again. Hundreds of its limestone blocks and pillars crashed and broke in pieces yesterday.” Then, about six months later, an area of the crate pile that had escaped the first fires was discovered blazing, and this was the worst fire of all. When it finally was extinguished, two hundred more stones had been damaged by the heating and sudden cooling. One museum trustee hinted darkly to the fire department that “some unknown party” wanted to make sure the monastery would never be built, but the cause was officially listed as “unknown,” and the firefighters generally believed it was children among the crates that started it.