- 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
During the early summer of the year 1213 Saint Martin of Finojosa was an old man and not in the best of health. Nevertheless, at the age of seventy-three the saintly bishop and abbot left his beloved Burgos for a long and taxing trip to visit a tiny new monastery on a hilltop near the Tagus River. Like all Cistercian monasteries, it was named for the Virgin Mary—in this case, Santa Maria de Ovila.
Saint Martin arrived on a scene of busy medieval construction, and there he stayed all summer, a welcome guest among the monks and workmen who were cutting fine gray limestone into blocks for the chapel, refectory, cloister, and other monastic buildings. Toward the end of August, Saint Martin began to have premonitions of his own death. He evidently wanted to return to the peace of his cell in Burgos, but felt he should stay for the consecration of the chapel, at which he was to speak. The chapel was finished in September, and he did speak at the consecration, exhorting the monks to persevere in their austere lives. Soon afterward he was helped onto his horse and set off on the long trip home. Out of affection and respect, the monks of Ovila left their work to accompany this old man, but the trip was very short, for a few days later, in a small village on the road, Saint Martin died. At his death it is said that his body exhaled a “mellow and celestial odor” which remained in the house several days and amazed the peasants; in addition various miracles were performed upon those who visited his tomb.
If Saint Martin were to return to earth today to visit the monastery where he spent the last months of his life, he probably would regret it. He would not find very much left on the banks of the Tagus where he watched the stones being shaped into cloister, chapel, and refectory. If he really wanted to see those stones, he would have to come to California and poke around in the underbrush near the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. In among the scrubby bushes and eucalyptus trees he might find Santa Maria de Ovila—all ten thousand pieces of it. This is the story of how it got there.
Santa Maria de Ovila was a fairly prosperous monastery. Like many Spanish religious establishments of the Middle Ages, it stood in that depopulated region behind the advancing Christian and the retreating Moorish armies. In a way the monks were as important in holding the land as were the soldiers in capturing it, for the monasteries provided secure islands of faith and farming in areas that were still a no man’s land between Christian and Moslem. This explains why Santa Maria de Ovila had walls seven feet thick in places and tiny slit windows. Like the wise little pig, the monks of Ovila had no intention of fighting but they knew how to build themselves a strong house.
If we judge by the buildings, Santa Maria de Ovila was most active before about 1650, since that is the date of the last major building project, a large Renaissance doorway for the chapel. The doorway was something of an afterthought, however, and most of the buildings are Gothic; they include the very early Gothic refectory, which Saint Martin had watched being built; a somewhat later and very handsome High Gothic chapter house; a rebuilt version of the chapel with late and flamboyant Gothic vaults; and a rebuilt version of the Gothic cloister with a High Renaissance arcade. In fact, Santa Maria de Ovila displayed a bit of each style of Spanish religious building from 1200 through 1600.
Like all small Spanish monasteries, its history ended in August of 1835, with a royal decree suppressing all religious houses with fewer than twelve inhabitants. Santa Maria de Ovila then had four. The mayor of the nearby town of Trillo presided over the sale of the monastery’s worldly goods; the highest price went for the wine-making equipment and an oxcart. Bargain hunters could also buy old beds, old broken tables, old cracked chairs, and old kitchen equipment. Most of the items in the inventory are disdainfully described as viejo (“antiquated”), probably because the sale took place several months after the monastery had been closed and nearly everything of value had disappeared in the meantime. In following years the roof tiles also disappeared, exposing the curious method which the Spanish medieval builders had of making their roofs: on top of the pointed vaults they packed dirt, smoothed it, and laid tiles loosely on top. A twentieth-century visitor reported seeing trees six to eight feel tall growing from the exposed roofs of the monastery.
The buildings themselves began to decay, of course, and this was hastened by very rough treatment from the local landowner, who used them as service buildings for a farm. The ornate Gothic chapter house, for instance, served as a manure pit. By 1930, about a hundred years after the monastery was closed, the buildings were in a reasonably advanced state of ruin, though all were still standing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.