Since May 11, coaches packed with tourists once again make the dizzying ascent to La Cuesta Encantada – “The Enchanted Hill,” California’s most magnetizing and majestic tourist attraction (sorry, Madonna Inn) and the best-known work of Julia Morgan, the pioneering Bay Area architect and reinforced concrete pioneer who, in 1904, became the first woman to earn an architectural license in California.
Better known as Hearst Castle, the San Luis Obispo County Historic Estate – built between 1920 and 1947 for publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, it opened to the public in 1958 as part of the historic landmark from Hearst San Simeon State, operated by California State Parks – suspended public tours in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic; even though pandemic restrictions were eventually lifted across California and beyond, the fabled estate remained off-limits to the public after a historic rainstorm in January 2021 led to culvert failures along the upper reaches of the main site access road. Now, the 2.5-mile-long stretch of road affected by the storm has been rebuilt and redeveloped, and California State Parks has reopened Hearst Castle to visitors after being closed for more than two years.
“Hearst Castle is a state treasure and we are thrilled to reopen this wonder to the public for safe and responsible enjoyment,” California State Parks Superintendent Armando Quintero said in a statement announcing the reopening. eagerly awaited from Hearst Castle. “We are confident that these one-of-a-kind repairs and upgrades to the roadside facility will serve countless generations to come.”
As detailed by California Parks, approximately 22,000 annual tourist bus trips were made along the main access road before the pandemic. Stretching five miles through rugged, rolling terrain rising more than 1,500 feet above the Pacific Ocean and Highway 1, the final stretch of the route “navigates over rocky outcrops and steep canyons by splitting into separate, narrower, one-way sections for uphill and downhill traffic.” The access road reconstruction project, estimated at $13.7 million, involved the construction of new walls concrete retaining walls and restoration of some existing historic stone walls; replacing storm-damaged 1920s clay culverts with modern culverts capable of withstanding future deluges; and demolishing the old roadway asphalt and recycle it into new, “thicker, stronger” pavement as part of a deep rehabilitation process.
In addition to a resilient new access road, the reopening of Hearst Castle comes with a long-awaited focus on Morgan, who has always been taken a back seat to Hearst (and the many notable Hollywood regulars during the Roaring Twenties) in the house-museum. programming for the public. Morgan is now the subject of a new namesake tour that focuses “on rarely seen areas of Hearst Castle that showcase his gift for design and photographic exhibits of architectural drawings, family photos and artefacts. personal”. The timing of the Julia Morgan Tour launch at Hearst Castle is timely as it follows the March release of Victoria Kastner’s in-depth biography Julia Morgan: an intimate biography of the pioneering architect chronicle books.
As noted by the San Luis Obispo Grandstand, the new tour was originally scheduled to launch in 2020 as part of a series of centenary celebrations commemorating the start of construction at the lavish Spanish colonial revival complex, but was pushed back for obvious reasons. While Hearst Castle is Morgan’s best-known and largest completed work (the sprawling hilltop estate, including his iconic main residence La Casa Grande, comprises four buildings spread over 80,000 square feet and includes 58 bedrooms, 60 bathrooms and a famous Lady Gaga swimming pool), she designed more than 700 buildings across California during a prolific but largely low-key career, including numerous projects, both before and after Hearst Castle, as principal architect of William Randolph Hearst. In addition to her work with the Hearst family, Morgan’s other major projects include a long and successful association with the YWCA and at Mills College in Oakland. Morgan died in 1957 aged 85 in her hometown of San Francisco; in 2014, she was posthumously awarded the AIA Gold Medal, the first female architect to receive this prestigious honor. In addition to becoming the first licensed female architect in California, Morgan was also the first woman to study architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Along with a new access route and tour celebrating Morgan’s legacy, the reopening of Hearst Castle, which is both a U.S. National Historic Site and a California Historic Landmark , will help resurrect the tourism-dependent economy of San Simeon, the small coastal town community where the estate is located. With its main attraction closed to visitors for the past two years, local businesses are hoping the reopening will provide the town with the economic boost it desperately needs.
Ticketing and touring information for Hearst Castle, which is reopening with admission fees $3 lower than before the pandemic, can be found here. For those whose summer travel plans include the extremely scenic stretch of the California coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco with a stop in San Simeon, advance reservations are highly recommended.