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Caretaker's Task Is Preserving Legacy of Hearst Castle

May 10, 1985|WILLIAM S. MURPHY | Murphy is a Times photographer. and

SAN SIMEON, Calif. — When Deborah A. Weldon drives to work each day, the last leg of her route is up a spiraling five-mile paved road to a plateau where she can look down on one of the most spectacular panoramic views of the Pacific Coast.

As a boy, the future publishing magnate, William Randolph Hearst, observed the same view when his family camped here in tents on property they acquired at the foot of the Santa Lucia range. Later, at the cost of millions of dollars he built and furnished a castle that rivaled in splendor the great palaces of the monarchs of Europe. Much of the decor was medieval, and here Hearst maintained a baronial life style, entertaining his friends and vassals of his financial empire.

Weldon, 35, is the caretaker of the castle and its art treasures. Appointed regional director for the state's Department of Parks and Recreation last year, she heads a staff that reaches 300 during peak summer months at the height of the tourist season.

Now Owned by State

The publisher died in 1951 at the age of 88. California acquired the castle and grounds from the Hearst family in 1958 and opened the estate to the public. It is now designated as the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument. Since that time, more than 16 million people have visited the castle with 20% of them coming from foreign countries.

Construction began in 1920, and Hearst and his family moved into the castle five years later. Architect Julia Morgan was responsible for carrying out Hearst's design ideas and work continued until 1937. The castle and its three adjacent guest houses contain 146 rooms. There is the 104-foot Neptune pool where Hearst swam daily unless the weather was inclement. On such occasions, he could use a spacious indoor Roman swimming pool.

One of Weldon's primary concerns is the preservation of the castle, ranging from the exterior of the buildings down to the last silver candelabra on the long dining table in the ultra-Gothic Refectory, which could have been the setting for a rousing feast by King Arthur and his mythical knights. All the household silver is polished on a regular schedule.

"What you have to remember is that building was started more than 60 years ago," Weldon explained. "Time erodes the materials. On the south terrace, for example, we've recently replaced many of the ornate terra cotta and ceramic tiles. Some we had in storage. Others had to be duplicated by a manufacturer. Every day, someone dusts all the marble statues with camel's hair brushes, and washes them with distilled water. Another employee rows around the Neptune pool in an inflated boat cleaning the tiles."

The staff includes a housekeeper, custodians, gardeners, a building maintenance crew, electricians, an auto mechanic, tour guides and park rangers.

"I walk the grounds frequently," Weldon continued, "looking for cracked tiles, fissures in the walls and making sure the flowers are being watered. We're also very security minded. We have now added a canine corps to patrol at night."

Landscaping was a particular interest of Hearst who loved his gardens. From 500,000 to 700,000 annuals were propagated each year, timed so there were always flowers in bloom. No one was allowed to pick them. Hearst's favorites were camellias. There were 3,000 rose plants of 84 varieties to delight his guests.

Hearst was particularly fond of animals, and at one time there were 60 species of grazing animals and 30 varieties of such jungle inhabitants as cheetahs, panthers, spotted leopards, elephants and lions enclosed in a 2,000-acre compound. It was the largest privately owned zoo in the world. The menagerie is gone today, but descendants of the zebra herd may still be seen grazing over the green rolling hills. Deer may also be observed at close range by visitors riding buses to the castle from the reception center below.

Polishing and cleaning are not the only requisites for preservation of artifacts. "Take the tapestries," Weldon pointed out. "They represent some of Mr. Hearst's most valuable acquisitions. We remove them from the walls from time to time and rest them in temperature-controlled vaults."

In the Assembly Room on two long walls, there is a set of tapestries designed by Giulio Romano, an Italian artist and architect of the 16th Century, and woven by Flemish craftsmen around 1550. They depict key events from the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. These were purchased by Hearst in 1921 for $65,000.

Weldon was graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1975 with a degree in landscape architecture. After working for a firm in England, she took a position with the state as an assistant landscape architect. Weldon was appointed to her present regional director's post last year.

Livening Up Tours

One of her current objectives is to make the tours more interesting. Visitors are generally shown through the rooms, awed by what they observe, but there is little time to study objects that are of particular interest.

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