A Backstage Visit to Hearst Castle
By Sarah Litvin, Tenement Museum Educator
On my recent vacation to San Francisco, California, I took a day trip down the Pacific Coast to visit a historic house museum: Hearst Castle, the West-Coast home built by the media mogul William Randolph Hearst and his architect, Julia Morgan, between 1919 and 1948.
The “Casa Grande,” as the castle’s main house is called, covers an area of 68,500 square feet, and includes 38 bedrooms, 30 fireplaces, 42 bathrooms, and 14 sitting rooms.
As you might imagine, the living quarters for guests at Hearst Castle were a bit different than those for residents at 97 Orchard Street in the 1930s. In our building, each family shared 325 square feet, and every toilet was shared by two families.
Like the Tenement Museum, Hearst Castle visitors purchase tickets to the tour (or tours) that most interest them, and a guide leads each small group up and down stairs through a series of rooms. Hearst Castle offers a Living History Program as part of its Evening Tour program. Docents, who are trained volunteers, dress in historically accurate 1930s period garb and portray generic household staff members and guests of William Randolph Hearst. Docents add a visual, third person interpretive element to the tours and help bring the castle to life.
Though the program is not offered during the summer, I was lucky enough to have an insider’s connection. A few years ago, when I was doing research to create the character and costume of Rosaria Baldizzi for the Tenement Museum’s Live! at the Tenement program, I contacted Mary Stephenson, Supervisor of Living History Programming. She was a huge help in recommending where to source 1930s costumes back in 2011, so I reached out to her again. She not only remembered me, but offered to give my parents and me a backstage tour.
Mary led us into the Living History office, which is inside one of the castle’s original guest houses, Casa del Sol.
Right away, it is clear that the staff enjoys spending time with each other in this space. On the wall of their lounge, there is a collage that one of their staff members created. From a distance, it looks like Hearst Castle. When you get close, you can see it’s made up of tiny photos of the Living History docents and their support staff!
Everything was beautiful…and beautifully researched and organized. Mary showed us the hats, ties, and jewelry collections, as well as amazing binders full of 1930s dress patterns that she and her support staff of 18 part-timers, plus dozens of volunteer docents, have put together (and created) since the program launched in 1990.
She even showed me samples of 1930s handbags that would be appropriate costume pieces to add to our own 1930s collection.
Just like the Tenement Museum, Hearst Castle’s staff has a Living History Wish List!
At the Tenement Museum, we feature first-person interpretation, and interpreters portray people who really lived at 97 Orchard Street. Our 1930s characters are Rosaria and Adolfo Baldizzi, who lived at 97 Orchard Street with their two children, Josephine and Johnny, from 1928-1935.
Come meet Rosaria, Adolfo, and other residents of 97 Orchard, on our Live! at the Tenement program, which takes visitors on a whirlwind adventure through three different time periods in the building. We are offering three special public programs over the coming months: June 15th (Father’s Day), July 4th, and September 28th, from 10-11:30am.
A Special Thanks to Mary Stephenson and The Hearst Castle®/California State Parks.