Cambrian: Arts & Events

Phoebe Hearst in spotlight for new Hearst Castle display

Phoebe Apperson Hearst takes center stage in a family photo with her grandsons, taken around 1915.
Phoebe Apperson Hearst takes center stage in a family photo with her grandsons, taken around 1915. Courtesy of Hearst Corp.

A new display at the Hearst Castle Visitor Center will open Sunday, May 22, free of charge, to highlight the remarkable life and “castle” connections of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, mother of William Randolph Hearst, one of the most influential philanthropists of her era and matriarch of the storied Hearst dynasty.

The night before the exhibit opens, there’s be a special reception in the spirit of the festive musicals that Phoebe Hearst hosted.

The reception — from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Saturday, May 21, at the Hearst Castle Visitor Center — is free for FHC members and $35 for nonmembers.

The evening event includes a social hour with light hors d’oeuvres, champagne and Hearst Ranch Winery wines, followed by a multimedia lecture by musicologist Leta Miller and musical performances coordinated by Opera San Luis Obispo.

The “Phoebe Apperson Hearst: Teacher, Mother, Builder” exhibition will feature rarely seen images and objects from public and private collections. The exhibit is funded by Friends of Hearst Castle (FHC) and is presented in partnership with the History Center of San Luis Obispo County and State Parks.

Mrs. Hearst

Phoebe Hearst never got to see the lavish estate her son and architect Julia Morgan created on the family’s “Camp Hill” camping site high above San Simeon. However, Mrs. Hearst’s influence can be felt throughout the manor that now includes 58 bedrooms, 41 fireplaces and more than 80,000 square feet in the four main buildings (the La Casa Grande main house and three guest houses), plus two grand pools that between them hold 550,000 gallons of water.

Hearst Castle is a state historical monument and accredited museum.

Phoebe Hearst was an educator, philanthropist, feminist, suffragist, devoted mother and avid supporter and collector of the arts.

She was born in Missouri in 1842 and worked as a teacher before marrying her distant cousin, 41-year-old successful miner George Hearst. The new bride was 19 years old.

Their only son, William Randolph Hearst, was born in 1863 in the Hearsts’ San Francisco home.

Ten years later, Phoebe and young W.R. Hearst went on a year-plus grand tour of Europe, a life-changing adventure that would form the foundation for the son’s love of art, design, castles, museums, cultural centers and, most of all, artifacts and artworks.

George Hearst was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1887, and the couple moved to the nation’s capital. When he died in 1891, his widow (and sole heir) returned to California and resumed construction on a palace in Pleasanton that her son had begun a few years earlier.

Phoebe Hearst commissioned architect Morgan for the job, a decision that had a pivotal influence on the latter’s future career and the estate that would eventually become Hearst Castle.

Mrs. Hearst financed a school to train kindergarten teachers and founded the first free kindergarten in the U.S. in 1887, later establishing three more of the schools. In 1897, she cofounded the National Congress of Mothers, a forerunner to the National Council of Parents and Teachers — better known today as the PTA. She founded a museum of anthropology, funded archaeological and anthropological expeditions, built libraries in mining towns across the country and fought to preserve California’s missions.

Her philanthropic activities included many donations to UC Berkeley, many in the form of scholarships for women, but also for buildings and the grounds. She was the first woman to become a regent of the University of California, serving actively on the board for more than two decades, from 1897 to 1919. That was the year Phoebe Hearst died at the age of 76, a victim of the “mother of all pandemics,” a worldwide influenza epidemic that caused approximately 50 million deaths.