SAN SIMEON, Calif. — It was the ultimate pool party. The benefit “V.I.P. Swim Experience” in the Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle here started with a troupe of Esther Williams look-alikes in matching white bathing caps and lipstick-red halter suits doing fan dives off the marble steps of the pool’s signature Roman Temple beneath a heroic pediment of Neptune.
As day descended into night, it was the bucket list set’s turn, as guests who paid more than $1,000 for the real-life fantasy of swimming in the Neptune Pool plunged into 345,000 gallons of frigid nirvana designed for the publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
“My husband doesn’t know what I spent on this, just so you know,” Barbara Littrell, a retired elementary school office manager from Costa Mesa, said. She quit smoking 21 years ago and was using some of her cigarette savings for the swim, during which she wore a feather boa.
Like Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Cary Grant and Charlie Chaplin before her, Ms. Littrell descended a series of grand staircases to behold the bewitching pool, set off by marble colonnades framing mountains, ocean and sky. “Spanx, don’t fail me now!” Ms. Littrell said before jumping in.
The singular evening, in which some wore wet suits and took underwater selfies, and one man glided around wearing a neoprene mermaid’s tail — was a benefit by the nonprofit Friends of Hearst Castle to celebrate the completion of the largest restoration project in the property’s history: a five-year, $5.4 million project to repair cracks that caused the pool to leak up to 5,000 gallons a day. The effort also involved replacing the 20,000 marble tiles that make up the pool’s Grecian-style mosaic floor.
It was drained in 2014 at the height of a drought and — with the exception of Lady Gaga, who created a brouhaha by having the pool temporarily refilled for a music video (in exchange for a large donation) while state water conservation measures were underway — had not been splashed in since. The funds from the event will go toward art and architecture conservation and education programs at the Castle, a 115-room, 123-acre love nest perched ethereally on a hill overlooking miles of coastline. Hearst canoodled there with the actress Marion Davies while his wife lived elsewhere. Located south of Big Sur, between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the lush estate was donated by the Hearst Corporation to the state in 1958 and is now Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, the most popular state park in California, with some 800,000 visitors a year.
The architect Charles Moore once described the pool as a “grand liquid ballroom” for Hollywood Olympians. It was here that Douglas Fairbanks Jr. played water polo, the 1920s Olympic gold medalist swimmer and “Tarzan” star Johnny Weissmuller showed off his strokes and the actor David Niven had water fights with the Hearst sons. The oddest sight was doubtlessly Hearst himself — he was always “Mr. Hearst” — playing in the pool with his beloved dachshund Helen as the little ball of fur paddled around him.
The Castle, or what Hearst described as “my little hideaway on my little hill,” was built by Hearst and the architect Julia Morgan over 28 years, starting in 1919, much of it in the Moorish-Spanish style. The current Neptune pool is the third iteration; like so much of the Castle, the idea started simply, as a reflecting pool for night-blooming lilies, then morphed into a utilitarian swimming pool and was later reimagined as a fantastical pièce de résistance incorporating ancient Roman fragments that Hearst snapped up in Italy in 1922.
The siren call of the pool runs deep: Impossibly blue from the sky’s refracted light, it is a watery cinematic paradise in which Hollywood stars communed with marble beauties — shapely nymphs, mermaids with pageboy hairdos and Venus rising voluptuously from a conch shell held by musclebound mermen — the statues positioned just so, so the water laps at their perfect Carrara derrières. The sculptures were the work of the Parisian artist Charles-Georges Cassou and commissioned by Hearst in 1930. They were all were conserved as part of the restoration.
Known as “La Cuesta Encantada” or “The Enchanted Hill,” the Castle and its grounds are the result of “one of the longest and most creative dialogues between an architect and a client in the history of American architecture,” said Victoria Kastner, the park’s historian emeritus.
Hearst, a feverish collector, had a profound attachment to the site, which had been in his family since 1865. He hired a trailblazer: Morgan was the first female graduate of the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the first licensed female architect in California. The two shared a passion for art and architecture, and a relentless drive for perfection. But they were also a study in contrasts: she five feet tall and dressed in no-nonsense gray tweed, he a portly 6-foot-3 and shaped “like a giant avocado,” as Niven recalled in a memoir.
The pool was largely inspired by Italian villas, like Hadrian’s at Tivoli and the Villa Borghese in Rome, with a hefty dose of Hollywood thrown in. Morgan scaled her ensemble to be experienced from the water. “They were after effect rather than authenticity,” combining Hearst’s acquired antiquities with Morgan’s ingenuity, Ms. Kastner noted.
The architect designed some three dozen pools during her nearly half-century career. “There’s no evidence that Julia Morgan set her toe in a body of water bigger than a bathtub,” Ms. Kastner said. “But in Hearst, she grasped the sensuality of what water and architecture represented.”
This is why the perk of perks for the park’s employees has been an annual staff swim (it may or may not be revived). It is also why nearly every year, some cheeky visitor will illegally jump into the pool, which is a misdemeanor subject to citation or arrest. “Sometimes they say they ‘fell in,’ even though they had their shoes off and someone was holding their cellphone,” Scot Steck, the supervisor of the park’s 72 guides, said.
The restoration itself was filled with plot twists for the preservation architects, the California firm Page & Turnbull, beginning with scuba divers mapping the cracks by injecting dye into the crevices to see how much they leaked. Icy-looking stalactites from dissolved white marble had formed beneath the pool, which was built on an elevated slab system. The serpentine green tile had naturally occurring asbestos, later deemed hazardous. “We had to shift gears, with people in white suits coming in rather than just chipping the tiles out,” said Tom Dufurrena, the principal in charge. The architects replaced all 20,000 tiles with marble from the original quarry in Vermont.
The pool sat empty for four years, with guides attempting to quash the bitter disappointment of guests by suggesting that seeing the hacked-up shell was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” said Dan Falat, the park’s superintendent. The Neptune — providentially — was refilled on Aug. 14, the 67th anniversary of Hearst’s death. Now, Mr. Falat said, “the castle feels whole again.”
Back at the pool Sunday evening, a nearly full moon rose surrealistically behind Morgan’s Moorish bell towers, and the water cast flickering shadows on the colonnades’ coffered ceilings. The swimmers’ reverberating whoops recalled high school pool parties without parents present.
After steeling my courage, I jumped into the pool myself (no wussie wet suit for me). The water was bracing but refreshing. I bobbed around talking to people I’d met just hours before; there was a spirit of camaraderie afloat, and I noticed how delighted and childlike the swimmers’ faces looked. There is nothing like a little wonder and awe to bring out youthfulness.
Most people emerged from the pool shivering, fortified by hot chocolate or tomato soup served in demitasse cups. For Morgan Balentine, 35, who was wearing blue-and-white striped loungewear, pink Gucci gloves and a Joseff of Hollywood brooch before changing into vintage wool trunks, being able cavort with the legacies of Cary Grant and other Hollywood stars was worth everything. “It won’t be remembered that I swam here,” he said. “But I’ll know.”
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