Touring museum homes, you discover that what's grand isn't necessarily what's great
Where does an architecture and design writer go on vacation (her honeymoon, no less)? Why, to look at other people's houses, of course.
I have been to see the turn-of-the-century summer mansions of Newport, R.I. With a six-house ticket, it is Disneyland for house buffs. But I had yet to visit the granddaddy of them all — the place that makes everything else look like Jed Clampett's before-up-from-the-ground-come-a-bubblin'-crude shack — Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Calif.
And here is what I learned there: Don't touch anything.
Do not. Don't even think about it or the well-dressed gentleman guide in the back of the group will cull you from the tourist herd. Where you will go then, I do not know. I did not touch anything.
"See these marble statues?" our guide said to an eager, awed group craning our necks like baby birds. "That's Carrera marble, just like Michelangelo used. You know why it's so white? Because nobody touches it. Your body is full of harmful oils that will soil these beautiful and priceless works of art, and you must not touch them."
And: "See these ugly metal railings? Please do not think these are part of the original house. We put those in for you to hold. You may touch only them."
We moved on. Walked up the steps from guest house Casa del Mar to the exterior of the big house, Casa Grande. Our guide stopped and turned to (on?) us.
To visit dreams lost
• To visit Hearst Castle, also known as Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, go to www.hearstcastle.com or call 800-444-4445. The castle is open for tours daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Four daytime tours and one evening tour are offered. Reservations strongly suggested.
• To visit Jack London State Historic Park go to www.parks.ca.gov and click on "visiting a park" or call 707-938-5216. A visit costs $6 per car, $5 per car if there is a senior citizen (62 or older) aboard.
"We are about to enter Mr. Hearst's house. Remember what I said earlier about touching? You are to touch nothing. You will see these really ugly carpets running along the hallways. Those were bought for you to walk on. You must stay on these. Do not touch the floors otherwise.
"Let us go now. We will not enter through the front door. We will go in through the back, like guests did then." (Guests such as Cary Grant, Jean Harlow, Harpo Marx, Clark Gable, W.C. Fields. I assume, however, Winston Churchill and Calvin Coolidge were permitted through the worthy-of-heaven front doors.)
I swear this is what he said. I wrote it down. It was as though the Great Journalist Himself were scowling down upon us.
Of course, San Francisco architect Julia Morgan's Mediterranean Revival buildings are grand. More than 90,000 square feet of shock and awe await you on that San Simeon mount: 41 fireplaces, 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms. Piles of art treasures and antiques. And how about that indoor pool of tiny glass tiles?
Hearst Castle is one of the largest of about 5,000 historic house museums in the country. But up the California highway is another house. This one is far more modest at 15,000 square feet, 26 rooms and nine fireplaces. It was the home of another of this country's journalism masters, Jack London.
And, blessedly, you're on your own at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. London's old homestead is a reverential place where you can practically feel a man's heart breaking. Six bucks buys you the entire farm for the day. But the blackened ruins of his beloved Wolf House at the end of the trail are what stir your heart.
At 2 a.m. on Aug. 23, 1911, the day London and his wife, Charmian, were to move in, Wolf House went up in flames due to spontaneous combustion caused by turpentine- and linseed-oil-soaked rags, and the previous day's 100-degree temperatures.
The house that Charmian had called "a big cabin, a lofty lodge, a hospitable tepee" had been designed by another San Francisco architect, Albert Farr. Made of redwood trees still in their own bark, deep chocolate-maroon volcanic rocks, blue slate, boulders, tree trunks, fruit twigs, Mexican-style tile and cement, it was built to withstand earthquakes.
But not fire.
London vowed to rebuild their home. But he had put everything he had into Wolf House, including money for stories not yet written. Instead, he built an annex to the farm's cottage and worked there until he died in 1916 at age 40. The death certificate says it was uremic poisoning. Some say it was suicide.
Others say he never got over that fire.
"The razing of his house killed something in Jack," Charmian said. "And he never ceased to feel the tragic sense of loss."
In no other place can you get a better sense of the importance of home. The charred, skeletal remains of a dream are powerful ghosts.
Farther up the road, just outside Medford, Ore., billboards tell of "The House of Mystery."
It shall remain so. We did not go.
Rebecca Teagarden is assistant editor of Pacific Northwest magazine. Les Fitzpatrick is a Seattle filmmaker.