Hearst Castle in San Simeon has been closed to visitors for more than a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s still costing the state millions of dollars.
According to Dan Falat, superintendent of the state park district that includes the Castle, California State Parks spent about $6.6 million from July 2020 through March 2021, to keep staffers at the former estate of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst busy on maintenance, repairs, conservation, groundskeeping and a host of other projects including online education for adults and children.
Hearst Castle had zero income during that period and since, Falat said, other than fees for a few ongoing contracts.
By comparison, Falat said the Castle’s income from tour ticket sales and other fees during the 2018-2019 fiscal year was $10.8 million, and annual revenue in other years has been as high as $16 million.
Expenses during a normal fiscal year, which runs July 1 to June 30, total about $13 million, he said.
Hearst Castle stopped giving tours on March 16, 2020, due to COVID-19 so the monument saw the same imbalance between expenses and income March through June 2020, Falat said.
Road repairs to keep Hearst Castle shut down longer
Even when pandemic restrictions ease to the point where the Castle can reopen, the monument likely will stay closed for a time due to safety issues on the road that leads from the Hearst Castle Visitor Center and bus staging area up the five-mile hill to the Castle.
The aging coast-to-hilltop route has seen lot less heavy-duty traffic on it since April 8. That’s when state park officials closed the road because of recently discovered storm-caused damage to the equally elderly drainage system under the pavement.
During the final week in April, according to Castle officials, a highly specialized Geocon vehicle towing a baby-stroller-sized trailer will go up and down, back and forth, on the topmost section of the road over the course of two or three days.
The sometimes steep and winding road extends from a set of cattle guards where two lanes separate to go around the Pergola up to the gates that open to allow passenger bus drivers, employees and others to enter and exit the compound itself.
Falat said that the data uncovered by the vehicle rig’s ground-penetrating radar equipment will help determine how long Hearst Castle’s current closure will last, beyond the shutdown caused by COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines for museums.
Falat likened the $32,000 worth of radar and other high-tech scientific data that will be amassed to images from an “X-ray or CAT scan.”
“Once you have the data, someone still has to analyze it,” he added.
The Geocon crew “also will do small-core drilling, in which they drill various small circles in the test area, testing the thickness of the pavement and looking for any voids in the ground or anything that shows that a culvert has failed,” he explained. The various techniques used “will give us the footprint of what’s underneath” the highest 2.25 miles of the road, Falat said.
“Collecting the data is pretty straightforward,” Falat said.
That’s just the start of a process that will produce a report to help state park engineers and officials decide what has to be done to make the road safe for heavy vehicles and heavy traffic.
Falat said the report-producing process that could last as long as six months.
He knows that’s a crucial time, not only for visitors to tour Hearst Castle but also for the local businesses that rely on Castle tourism for sales.
San Simeon estate hit by winter storm
Crews also have been working to combat damage at Hearst Castle from the late January storm that dumped up to 20 inches of rain and unleashed 100 mph wind gusts on the estate known as La Cuesta Encantada.
There were some storm-related crises inside the estate’s more than 80,000 square feet of structures, incidents that required immediate attention while the multi-day storm was still raging.
For instance, an exterior door in the Main Library blew open, which allowed torrents of water to roar into the room, down the stairs and into a basement vault. Water also got into the Gothic Library.
But things could have been much worse. Damage to the interior and the library’s many antique books wasn’t as severe as it could have been, according to Falat and his supervisors.
Museum curator Toby Selyem said none of the books were drenched, and a total of eight volumes “were slightly wet on the bottom edge of the cover. There seems to be no staining,” and “the pages did not get wet.”
He said “all the books are irreplaceable,” so it was good news that “no book was so wet it couldn’t be dried,” and none was irreparably damaged.
None of the Castle’s tapestries got wet this time around, but two rugs did.
Castle staff have dealt with similar problems in the past, and they’ve learned how to combat dampness.
For instance, if books are damp, Selyem said, “they are opened, stood on end and allowed to air dry. There are heaters and fans nearby, and they are moved every few hours.“
“Fans are used to help air dry tapestries,” he said, and the treatment for rugs is to “elevate the rug off the ground and let it air dry.”
To prevent mildew and mold where the flooding was, “the area is cleaned of all dust and let to dry using fans in a heated room, and the area is monitored daily,” he said.
Throughout the pandemic, collections staffers have continued to do their normal tasks, which are “a bit easier to complete without visitors,” Selyem said.
When tours are running, staffers doing these chores “usually must stanchion off areas to the public … turn off vacuums or other equipment when tour groups are present,” he said.
With tours running every 10 minutes during peak season, that’s a lot of starting and stopping.
Staffers’ tasks can range from normal dusting and sweeping to waxing the antique floors and hand-waxing antique wooden furniture, polishing silver and brass objects and vacuuming antique rugs and tapestries.
Winds, fallen trees damage plants at Castle
A report prepared for The Tribune by Tyler Melendy and Shannon Elver, park landscape maintenance technicians, details some of the outdoor damage to the Castle grounds.
“Large oak limbs either fell or were suspended in trees, debris covered pathways and various other plant varieties took damage from high winds,” Melendy said. “An estimated 50 historic plantings in the formal gardens and 35 trees visible from the approach road were either damaged or lost.”
Seven of those lost or severely damaged trees were located in the Castle’s formal gardens: three Coast live oaks, two windmill palms, one Italian cypress and one orange tree.
Along the approach road, four Coast live oak trees, 27 acacia trees, three eucalyptus trees and one Monterey pine tree were damaged. One oak tree and 15 acacias were destroyed, according to the report.
The falling trees and branches also damaged various shrubs and larger plants, including 24 Italian cypress, lantana and standard tree roses, Mediterranean fan palms, camellia trees, citrus trees and boxwood hedges. Also damaged were azaleas, a honey locust tree, a New Zealand tea tree, a hydrangea, a rhododendron, climbing roses and dracaena.
“We go to great lengths to preserve our historic oaks,” trees that Hearst so admired, Elver said.
During Castle construction, Hearst “modified plans and carefully dug up trees to be replanted elsewhere, such as Coast live oak No. 15, which was lost during the storm.”
There’s an upside, however. Now citrus trees and roses that had been shaded by that lost Coast live oak “can flourish in the sunlight they require, with a hollow stump left to tell its story.,” she said.
Citrus crops also were lost, due to the high winds.
“Fortunately, we were able to schedule a ‘glean’ on Jan. 26, prior to the storm, allowing our department to donate 2,814 pounds of citrus to Glean SLO and the SLO Food Bank,” Elver said.
She said that Hearst “enjoyed citrus for its color and fragrance, planning hundreds of trees,” and ultimately “sharing the fruit with the San Simeon community.”
As recovery efforts continue, Falat says he’s hoping the Castle can reopen as soon as possible.
“That’s our goal, once COVID restrictions allow it and it’s safe for us to put the buses back on the road,” he said.