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Daughter Traces Builder's Role at Hearst Castle

January 12, 1986|EVELYN De WOLFE

A missing chapter in the annals of the storied Hearst Castle has come to light through the determined efforts of the daughter of a principal figure in the construction of the historic San Simeon landmark.

Milicent Patrick Trent, actress and illustrator, has just completed a yearlong search for evidence of the major role and work of her father, Camille Charles Rossi, who worked directly with publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst.

Trent's search for evidence of her father's work and his crucial role in the building of the historic landmark gained momentum with a story in The Times (Jan. 27, 1985) about the existence of a collection of forgotten letters and plans of George Loorz who directed the later construction of Hearst's grandiose pet project on the Hill.

Rossi is barely mentioned in most chronicles of the Hearst Castle, according to Trent, who spent 10 years at San Simeon as a child. One brief notation describes her father as "a flamboyant character given to fighting bulls on vacations in Mexico, who was superintendent of construction until the early 1930s."

"He was flamboyant, all right," Trent smiled. "But he was much more than that. He was an extremely colorful personality and a close friend of The Chief (Hearst). His input went beyond that of the builder and overlapped into the interior design and even in the choice of furnishings.

Life Like a Novel

"Not until I began reading some of the brochures on the castle, did I realize how little was known about my father, who worked for Julia Morgan and supervised construction of all the main existing structures from 1921 to 1932."

The reference to fighting bulls in Mexico may not have been too far from the truth, Trent said. "My father was very young and daring in those earlier years in Mexico and his life style read like an Errol Flynn movie epic."

After the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, Trent said, her father moved with his parents to Mexico City, and while in Mexico, climbed its two tallest volcanoes (a feat reported in a 1913 issue of National Geographic magazine), became Mexico's national amateur fencing champion, and at 20, participated in the building the Theatro Nacional (now the Palacio de Finas Artes).

In 1912, Rossi traveled to San Francisco to marry his childhood sweetheart, but immediately returned to Mexico to construct La Boquilla Dam, second largest earthen dam in the world.

The Mexican Revolution was in full swing, and it became dangerous for Americans to remain. Rossi encountered Pancho Villa who confiscated his car for his own use, and after some hair-raising escapades, Rossi managed to get Villa to provide him with a letter of safe passage which he used to find his way back to San Francisco.

Though primarily self-taught, Rossi studied architecture at Mark Hopkins School of Design and was later enrolled in the California School of Design, then associated with the University of California at Berkeley.

In 1921, after a brief stint as a mining engineer in Peru, Rossi was hired by architect Julia Morgan, who needed an engineer and superintendent of construction for Hearst.

"My father worked on the drawings for the castle in Julia Morgan's San Francisco office prior to arriving at San Simeon in 1922. At the time, only one permanent structure, the Casa del Mar, had been built. It was the first of the three guest cottages on the property," Trent said. "Thereafter, my father built all the buildings that are there today."

Received Lavish Gifts

Rossi became a close friend of The Chief--building, tearing down and rebuilding at Hearst's whim. Hearst showed his appreciation with lavish gifts that included a gold evening watch, handsome luggage with silver fittings and a custom-built Studebaker.

Rossi started on the remaining guest cottages and finished them so that the Hearst family could visit San Simeon. After that, ground was broken for the main building.

The outdoor pool was completed about 1926, Rossi's records show, and filled with water for Hearst's inspection. Hearst reputedly told Rossi: "It looks a little too small, couldn't we enlarge it?" and explained how he would like it curved out on both ends. The pool was torn out and rebuilt to suit Hearst's wishes.

The indoor pool was fully completed in the late 1920s, but proved to be a disappointment because only a few guests enjoyed swimming indoors. The Filipino houseboys were the only ones who used it, Trent remembers. Eventually, it was drained and a wooden cover was built over it to prevent anyone from falling in.

"The Chief appeared to me like a mountain of a man with a gentle, almost feminine voice. He and father were good friends and father admired him greatly," Trent said. "Father enjoyed pleasing him to the minutest detail and was often called upon to prove it.

Offending Tree Limb

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