- 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 fires also burned most of Antonio Gomez’s numbers off the stones and to some degree turned the monastery into a giant, maimed puzzle. Without the numbers any quick reconstruction became impossible; an expert certainly could tell a column from a ceiling vault and probably could distinguish the stones of one building from those of another, but beyond that there would lie an almost endless labor of trial-and-error fitting. Actually the pile of stones was never a complete set of buildings that could be put together like children’s blocks; many of the walls had been judged uselessly heavy rubble by Steilberg and Byne and were left in Spain, so that reconstruction would have required a good deal of newly cut material even in 1932. But with nearly half the stones damaged beyond use in 1958, the task was clearly beyond reach.
In 1960 Walter Steilberg was again hired to work on Santa Maria de Ovila but this time for the melancholy task of breaking up the rest of the flammable crates and sorting the stones as best he could into rough heaps. The refectory went over here, the chapel over there, but they were all just big piles of rock. He tested each stone by sounding with a large chisel and discarded the cracked ones; at the end he found that of the original five buildings at least two—the refectory and the chapter house—were more than half there. Since he considered these two the most architecturally interesting of the group, the news was not all bad, but chances of reconstruction seemed more and more remote, with costs mounting all the time.
In 1963 there was a brief flurry of interest when the monks of a Buddhist monastery in California’s gold-rush country offered to rebuild what they could if the city would give them the stones; in 1970 a San Francisco official suggested that the stones be used as embellishment in the subway stations then being built. Both these plans, like all the other plans for Santa Maria de Ovila, got mired in complications and eventually were forgotten.
The museum authorities got a taste of the cost of reconstruction in 1964 when it was decided to put up the large central door of Santa Maria’s chapel at one end of the “Hearst Court” in the de Young. This door is a hefty piece of Spanish Plateresque stonework, very atypical of the rest of the monastery buildings, since it is about four hundred years younger than most of them and since its elaborate ornament contrasts sharply with the monastery’s ascetic plainness. Nevertheless it was still intact and it seemed like a good and relatively inexpensive idea to reassemble it. The first estimates were under $10,000, but as the job progressed it became evident that the twenty tons of limestone would not support their own weight and still meet earthquake standards, so a structural steel framework had to be buried in the wall, and the doorway fixed to the steel one block at a time. When the dust settled, the bill was about one and a half times the original estimate. That doorway, however, is the only piece of Santa Maria de Ovila that is back in its original form.
The actors in the story are all dead. Arthur Byne died in Madrid in 1939; William Randolph Hearst lived to be eighty-eight, dying in 1951; Julia Morgan, hoping to the very end that the medieval museum would be built, died at age eighty-five in 1957; in early December, 1974, Hearst’s wife Millicent died in New York, and in the same week Walter Steilberg, a vigorous but radiantly serene eighty-eight-year-old, was run down and killed by a car in Berkeley.
The stones too are dead. Unprotected, they gradually are weathering away. Occasionally a tourist gets off the path to the Japanese Tea Garden and is startled to find the heaps of large limestone blocks; some whimsical and very strong artists have stacked a few of the stones into gigantic throne-like chairs; the piles are slowly being diminished by park crews who use the damaged ones for retaining walls; a bulldozer was used not long ago to clear away the few remaining crates, and many of the blocks show fresh marks of the machine’s blade.
The crates and the canvas and the sheds that covered the stone are gone, and the moss and eucalyptus sprouts are taking over now. The steady winter rains beat down, the shrubbery covers the jagged shapes, and the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Ovila is slowly, ever so slowly, disappearing from view.