With summer almost here, many families are cleaning out backyard pools, fixing leaks in the Doughboys and getting surrounding patios ready for summer fun.
But when the above-ground pool you’re rehabbing is 104 feet long and up to 95 feet wide, the complex fix-it job takes much longer and costs a lot more: The iconic Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle, one of the most famous swimming locations in the world, is getting a substantial face-lift.
It’s a massive renovation. The state-funded project, estimated to cost $5.4 million, could be complete by this fall, according to Dan Falat, superintendent of the state park district that includes the Castle, the former estate of eccentric media magnate William Randolph Hearst.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“Even a pool remodel is one-of-a-kind at Hearst Castle,” Falat quipped recently, during The Tribune’s special tour of the area.
The Neptune Pool features a terrace, colonnades with four Italian bas-reliefs on the sides and a temple pediment with sculptures of Neptune and Nereid. Construction spanned from 1924 to 1936, with three different versions of the pool, each one larger than its predecessor.
Current renovation work by contractor T.B. Penick & Sons of San Diego and subcontractors began in earnest a year ago, but the project’s planning process in Sacramento and San Simeon had been underway for about a decade, Falat said.
When the work is complete, the “new” Neptune should look the same as the original, but without the pesky leaks that have plagued it for about 80 years.
This summer’s visitors to the Castle will get a rare view of the Neptune as work proceeds: finding leaks and injecting expandable foam to stop them; sanding the concrete shell; redoing the filtration, piping and flow systems; giving the above-ground pool its first real waterproofing plus a flexible membrane liner; and then laying thousands of new, replica tiles of marble and serpentine.
Although this view of the Neptune Pool is unusual, the pool has been empty and repaired before. In the past decade or so, as engineers and others chased the leaks, the pool was emptied and patched several times. (The Neptune also was emptied a couple of times to reduce water loss during the five-year drought.)
Now, the whole pool area is cordoned off, and visitors can only go as far as the Neptune Terrace overlooking the pool. That change has been a “huge challenge from the tour-operation perspective,” Falat said, necessitating modifications to tour routes, schedules and even where tour buses drop off visitors.
The pool holds 345,000 gallons of water, which comes from reservoirs on the Hearst Ranch. That’s enough water to fill more than a dozen typical backyard pools.
The Neptune is so large, Museum Director Mary Levkoff said, “You could put the biggest guest house inside the pool.” That would be the 5,350-square-foot, eight-bedroom Casa del Mar.
Falat and Levkoff said the pool’s new tiles will be identical to the originals from the 1930s. Even the source is the same — the Carl Schilling Stoneworks quarry in Vermont.
Despite previous attempts to stem the Neptune’s leaks, this project is the first time all of the historic tiles in the pool and alcove have been removed and will be replaced. Eight decades of being under water took a toll on the stone tile, supports in the pool and some sculptures sitting in the alcove.
To prepare for the repairs, workers removed the old tiles at night, so the noisy process wouldn’t disturb visitors on daytime tours.
Levkoff said the process “reaffirmed for me the dedication good people have to their work.” Crew members labored endlessly in heavy hip boots, standing in cold water, under night lighting from massive spotlights.
The best thing about skilled conservation is you can’t see it. Conserved artworks are supposed to look old but well cared for.
Mary Levkoff, Hearst Castle museum director
As the project progressed, outsized trucks have delivered from 22,500 to 44,000 pounds each of replacement tiles and blank stock, according to a State Park architect coordinating the project from Sacramento. About 75 percent of the approximately 10,000 white marble pieces and 4,500 green serpentine pieces are cut roughly to size. The rest are to be customized onsite.
The stone is now stacked for safekeeping, Levkoff said.
Falat and Levkoff said the stone delivery was difficult. Each of the five delivery trucks was too long and its load far too heavy to make the 7-mile-long, steep, winding-road trip up the hill. So the delivery drivers parked at the bottom of the hill, and State Parks staff unloaded the stone, then reloaded it into smaller vehicles that could make it up to the Castle.
Some of a $250,000 donation made in 2014 by Lady Gaga to the Hearst Castle Preservation Foundation went toward treating the “Birth of Venus” statuary group in the Neptune Pool alcove. Sculptor Charles-Georges Cassou created the group in the 1920s in Paris.
One of the most challenging aspects of the pool-restoration project, Falat said, was removing those sculptures and pedestals that had been in the water-filled alcove for so long.
Each sculpture weighs several tons, and it was a heart-stoppingly tense procedure to detach them from their brick-and-mortar pedestals and move them without damaging them. The process required building overhead gantries, meticulously wrapping straps and using pulleys to move them slowly.
Given the weight of the sculptures, and the hefty equipment used to relocate them, Falat said, workers also had the tricky job of protecting the historic marble tile on the terrace that surrounds the Neptune.
He called the entire process “an engineering feat.”
The statuary needed repairs, Levkoff said, because over the decades, water had etched away some of the marble below the waterline. The dissolved minerals combined with the air to form a new layer on the sculptures in a sort of marblesque ridge. The recessed area below each ridge was discolored.
Conservator Erik Risser has removed the ridges and discoloration, and treated the resurfaced areas to protect them and help them to blend in.
“The best thing about skilled conservation is you can’t see it,” Levkoff said. “Conserved artworks are supposed to look old but well cared for.”
Replica pedestals for the statuary will be concrete, identical in size and shape, but better able to withstand the constant submersion in water, Levkoff said. Not only that, the pedestals will be state-of-the-art, with a scissor lift inside each pedestal, to allow the sculpture to be lifted without being wrapped in ropes.
Falat and Levkoff hope that won’t have to happen for a long, long time.
The area around the Neptune Pool includes some landscaping. Falat said Castle staffers also “had to develop a way to irrigate without staff going into the areas that were closed. Some trees already had drip systems, but those had to be redesigned,” the superintendent said.
Levkoff said that something as simple-sounding as resetting the steps (the side-mounted ladders that swimmers climb to get out of the pool) is tremendously complex.
“It’s such a challenge, because the rails have to be perfectly vertical and the steps have to be perfectly horizontal,” and they’re “pinned with sleeves into the wall.” Some of the pins “go in straight, some at an angle.”
And there are no do-overs.
Despite all the complications, she said, the entire renovation “has been a really stupendous experience.”