Not long ago, I visited William Randolph Hearst’s renowned estate near San Simeon, California, now a state park better known as Hearst Castle. With its serene mountaintop setting, verdant gardens, and spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean, the palatial retreat designed by Julia Morgan between 1917 and 1941 was soon nicknamed The Enchanted Hill. And indeed, soaking up its breathtaking gardens on a crystalline morning is about as close to paradise as most of us will ever get. Our guide touched on this fact when she ended the tour by sighing: “Well, it’s time for us to go back down the hill to reality.”
This poignant comment got me to thinking. Is it only Hearst Castle’s extravagance that makes it such a remarkable place? Or is there something more--something that any one of us, whether millionaire or middlebrow, could bring to our own environment?
Most of us seem to have accepted that beautiful surroundings are the exclusive domain of the wealthy. Granted, money is a prerequisite to many things in this world, but creating and appreciating beauty are not among them--if they were, all artists would be fabulously wealthy. Rather, beautiful surroundings are something that any one of us, rich or poor, can aspire to. We may not be able to create them on the scale that Hearst and Morgan did, but we can do so on the scale of our own homes, and that is enough.
In fact, what makes Hearst Castle so unforgettable is not merely its lavish design or the drama of its site. Rather, it’s the degree of thought and care that both Morgan and Hearst invested in every aspect of the work. A diminutive fountain, a beautiful motif in colored tile, a carefully-sited orange tree--it’s the sum of these modest details, and not just the grand gestures, that make the Enchanted Hill sing.
What’s more, such details, and a thousand others, are within reach of just about anyone who cares to have them. They hinge upon careful thought and a desire for beauty more than they do on money. If you’re not convinced, consider that the same people who marvel at what Morgan and Hearst created at San Simeon also feel pangs of longing for quaint French villages or Italian hill towns--places that are hardly the product of great monetary wealth. Human contentment, it seems, has less to do with extravagance than with the simple degree of comfort and care we invest in our own surroundings: In its own context, a bright pot of flowers on a windowsill can have just as much impact on the spirit as the most scrupulously-tended formal garden.
Whether castle or cottage, beautiful homes all share the same basic traits. Some of them we must furnish: materials--however, modest--assembled with care; patterns to delight the eye; textures to delight the touch. Others are there for the taking: fall colors, the trickle of rainwater, the song of a bird, the fragrance of a climbing vine. Taken together, these are aspects of beauty that all of us can afford, and that we all deserve to have around us.