Lessons in Life Gleaned from Hearst Castle

Roman Baths pool. Photo courtesy of Karen Daniel

Just recently I had the opportunity to extend a trip associated with my role here for a few days to enjoy that virtual Eden that is California. My wife and I spent a couple of days in Disneyland, of course, but also took a couple of days to drive up to central California where we experienced Cambria and San Simeon for the first, and hopefully not the last, time. While there we toured the Hearst Castle—basically, the West Coast equivalent of the Biltmore Mansion. This incredible manor, built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst, has an incredibly rich history and story. During the tour and in subsequent conversations I’ve picked up on some basic principles for life that can be gleaned from this uniquely American event.

Partnership. For such a special project Hearst had to seek out the most gifted architect of the day. He found Julia Morgan. Julia completed hundreds of projects in her life but is probably most famous for her role with Hearst. The Hearst Castle took 15 years to complete and it necessitated a give-and-take partnership between visionary and builder, each most likely at times serving these roles alternately. There were probably moments of tension and exasperation, but in the final analysis both were well aware that they had crossed the Rubicon into the point of no return. As we say, they were “in it.” The fact is that we need partners. We need people to invest in us and we need to invest in others. There is a basic need to share back-against-the-wall moments when trying to build something with substance. In this case, it’s architectural. In most cases, it’s just life.

Beauty Is Worth The Wait. There are little details everywhere you look on the tour we were on. The indoor pool Hearst referred to as the Roman Baths (pictured) has thousands of tiles made of 22 karat gold. The marble implemented in creating the outdoor pool was imported from Italy. The art collection amassed painstakingly over the course of a lifetime. The story behind the furniture and paintings in the guest houses. While our lives are literally littered with one beautiful moment after another, there is a masterpiece emerging even as we live our day-to-days. There’s a call to be intentional, for sure, but stringing the beautiful moments together into the magnum opus is the work of a lifetime.

Work In Progress. The house sits atop  hill that’s 5 miles away from the coast. I mean it’s way up there—practically above the clouds. These circumstances required that the work site become a small-city where builders could actually live, supplies stored, and materials warehoused. In many of the pictures we saw it is an absolute mess. But in order to get where he wanted to be, Hearst and Morgan had to tolerate—dare I say encourage—the mess on the way to the destination. We’ve said plenty of times before here at Agonistes: Life is messy. But it’s OK. To build something great requires a tolerance for mistakes and messes.

Willing to Scrap. The outdoor pool, known as Neptune Pool (pictured), was originally designed to accommodate Hearts’s family and a few others. After it was completed, however, it was decided to scrap the whole thing to make it bigger—and grander. Similarly, the Casa Grande originally had just one spire. Because of the threat of earthquakes, all construction utilized re-enforced, fortified concrete making any sort of “re-do” a task of Ruthian proportions. But for all practical purposes they tore down the entire house so they could build in a second spire … just because. Taking this in I remember concluding, when creating something significant we’ve got to be willing to scrap our original plan if the occasion calls for it. To be a great builder often requires that we be willing to scrap what we’ve already built. I’ve heard the phenomenon referred to as “re-inventing yourself.” Dylan Thomas put it a different way: “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Become Art Collectors. In the case of William Hearst, collecting art was a zillion-dollar habit that included roaming the entire planet in a quest for the most beautiful, rare, and wonderful finds. In our case, the “art” we collect translates into the stories being told through and around us. Everyone of us has a story and we tend to live through its filters as we interact with the world around us socially, politically, and emotionally. It’s a noble enterprise to become a collector of stories—an art collector, if you will—through intimate relationships. Not “intimacy” in a romantic sense, although certainly not precluding that, but “intimacy” in a way that asks us to give of ourselves and make an effort to really know those closest to us.

Yeah It May Be Hard But ….
Not once on the tour did I hear the guide refer to a moment when something wasn’t done because it was too hard. (Disclaimer: Seeming endless resources does contribute in this case.) Hearst had a zoo on site. (He owned a polar bear.) He made substantial changes in construction and planning as a result of art acquisitions. Building on the hill posed enormous challenges given the technology of the day. Instead of seeing the obstacles, he chose instead to “live” in a yet-to-be-seen reality and plot every push of the fly-wheel in that direction—sometimes in small, hand-carved increments. I would refer to this as a form of romanticism. There will be difficult moments, but they are ordained and allowed for very specific reasons. These are the times that stretch us into being closer to what we have been created to be: wonderful and fierce, just as Scripture suggests.

So in a sense we are all architects and builders. And we are also being built. A visit to something as extraordinary as the Hearst Castle is a profound reminder of what we’re capable of both being and doing.

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