Hearst Castle versus Nit Wit Ridge:
Fantasies Do Come True

By Kathy Chin Leong


This is a story of two eccentric men with similar dreams who built hilltop mansions, festooning them with treasures they collected throughout their lives. This is also a story about two men whose homes are now legendary tourist attractions and California historic registered landmarks. However, one gentleman you have probably heard of, and the other you have not.


HEARST- THE MILLIONAIRE

Enter William Randolph Hearst, famed newspaper baron who owned the San Francisco Examiner. In 1919, he inherited over 250,000 acres of his parents estate in San Simeon and drummed up a plan to create a little vacation spot for his family and friends. He hired popular architect Julia Morgan to design an edifice that later became Hearst Castle, a 90,000 square foot compound of mansions and guest houses with a total of 61 bedrooms, 19 sitting rooms, and 56 bedrooms.

By the time the castle was completed in 1947, he had invested 30 years and a fortune importing expensive and rare art from Europe and the Mediterranean. As a boy he developed a penchant for fine paintings and sculptures. Under the tutelage of his mother, young Hearst traveled with her on a year-and-a-half journey throughout Europe where he explored art galleries and lovely museums and cathedrals and great monuments of the day.


BEALE- THE TRASH COLLECTOR

While San Francisco-born W.R. Hearst lived in opulence and trotted the globe, Art Beale had no such advantage. Born in Oakland in 1896, 33 years after Hearst, Beale lost his mother in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake when he was only ten. Raised in an orphanage in the Bay Area, Beale was shuttled from foster home to foster home until he was old enough to make ends meet.

While Hearst inherited his 250,000 acres, Beale purchased his 2.5 acres of hillside property in nearby Cambria, the town next door to San Simeon. This piece of precious land cost him $500.

Hearst nursed a fantasy to build and so did Beale. And Beale, a trash and junk collector, used an axe and shovel to exhume dirt and rocks in order to create his tri-level home, now known as Nit Wit Ridge, also spelled "Nitt Witt" or "Nitt Wit".

Hearst spent nearly 30 years to create his dream castle,which represented one out of 30 homes he owned. The businessman, who later married and had five children, employed armies of laborers to build with gold, mahogany, copper, silver, mother-of-pearl- the best materials money could buy.
 

Beale,a single bachelor, spent 50 years handcrafting his one and only home out of cast off materials he found on the beach, items found in dumpsters, or things people simply gave him to haul away. He found great joy in embedding abalone shells, old tires, toilets, and Busch beer cans in the structure throughout.

At the end, he had completed a kitchen, dining room, an outdoor bathroom with two toilets facing each other (for conversation), a bedroom and another smaller house in the back with a bedroom, bathroom, and small kitchenette.
Beal died in 1992 at the age of 96 in a rest home near Cambria. As for William Hearst, he died in Beverly Hills in 1951 at age 88.

HEARST CASTLE TODAY


 In our electronic age, taking a tour of Hearst Castle is as easy as logging online to secure reservations. Run by the State of California Park system, the attraction costs $20 per adult and $10 for children 5-17. Five separate tours cover various aspects of the property. The newest one is the Evening Tour which features docents in period costumes of the 1930s. They recreate a typical night depicting what it was like to be a guest at this infamous castle.

The Hearst Visitor Center is up-to-date and modern with two gift shops, two snack bars, a fudge stand, outdoor picnic area, and a museum. On site is the National Geographic Theater, a state-of-the-art, air-conditioned theater that seats hundreds with a five-story screen eight times the size of a conventional movie screen.

NIT WIT RIDGE TODAY


While you can either call or go online to get on a tour at Hearst Castle, you must call Nit Wit Ridge owner Michael O’Malley direct to get a personal tour. Many times you will have to leave a message. And hopefully, someone will call you back. There is no website for Nit Wit Ridge. Costs for the Nit Wit run $10 per adult and $5 for children. You must pay O’Malley in cash either at the end or the beginning of the tour.

And tours at the Hearst estate last 1 hour and 45 minutes for the bus ride/tour and another 40 minutes for the movie. Nit Wit tours, run by sole proprietor and employee Mike O’Malley, last about 1 hour to 90 minutes, depending on how much you want to know about the place. You also get to view a TV clip.

O’Malley and his wife Stacey, both formerly of L.A., purchased the property in 1989, and set forth restoring the structure to follow safety codes in order to give tours. And while keeping the integrity of Art Beale’s vision, O’Malley interviewed everyone in town who knew him. And the townsfolk, to this day, either hate Nit Wit Ridge, or they accept it as a strange guy’s attempt to build his dream home.

While Nit Wit is registered as a California historical landmark, it receives no funding from the state, unlike Hearst Castle. Hence, O’Malley solely relies on tips and admission fees to pay himself a salary and to fun the upkeep of the dilapidated abode.

PERSONAL IMPRESSIONS


On Day One of our trip to Cambria, our family of four toured Hearst Castle. On Day Two, I told the kids we were going to Nit Wit Ridge to see what the poor man’s Hearst Castle would look like in comparison.

Nit Wit Ridge takes some time to find as it is on a residential slope above Main Street. There are no ticket booths. No parking lots. No gift shops. We parked across the street from the house off a narrow dirt road. There was a rusty chain hooked across the entryway of the property.

From the street, Nit Wit Ridge looks like someone has already taken a bulldozer to a condemned property as you see bare wood, rafters, exposed cement. There are no obvious paint colors, but lots of steps and arches buttressed with abalone shells. A lifesized fake deer with antlers peers out onto the street from the front of the house. Hmm. This was going to be fun.

THE TOUR OF NIT WIT


While we were waiting in front, another curious couple pulled up in their van and joined us. Our intrepid crew of six now waited for our 1 p.m. tour. Would Mike O’Malley show up?

He did! Mike, wearing a beatnik cap, sporting long mahogany tresses and a black NIT WIT RIDGE t-shirt, emerged, ambling down the steps from the old structure, and greeted our brave party. A friendly chap, he led us up winding staircases and proceeded to unravel the story of the crazy, moody fellow who would shake his fist when people drove buy and yet offer to take college students or nice-looking women on tours in exchange for a six-pack of beer.

Also called Der Tinkerpaw, because he tinkered with his paws, Beale loved to take whatever he could and transform it into art. By the way, the ad in the Cambria brochure calls it "folkart" but I wouldn’t. I think others would join me in calling Beale’s creations just plain weird.

In the makeshift patio stands a bird bath pieced with tires and car rims. Another piece of junkart is called the lighthouse, stacked with pottery saucers and a washing machine rotator at the top.  Still another is his version of a waterfall as pictured here-two public bathroom sinks and a bathtub. Note the abalone shells beneath!

My favorite was the toilet seat frame embedded in the entrance wall. Beale loved old movie stars so he would put their photos right in the center of the seat! Soon enough, you realize that this oddball attraction embodies the spirit and personality of Art Beale, and O’Malley does an outstanding job describing this quirky old man.

HOME THEATER


The National Geographic Hearst Castle Theater boasts of surround-sound and precision projection. At Nit Wit Ridge, O’Malley brought us to the dining room, now used as a theater with rows of folding chairs and two small TV/VCRs mounted on the walls. He turned on the videotape, an interview of Beale made while he was living at the ridge as an old man.

During the 4-minute show at Nit Wit, versus the 40-minute one at Hearst, we learned a lot about Beale. He loved poetry and wrote a book of poems now housed at the Cambria Library. He would often wander into downtown Cambria wearing nothing but a blue bathrobe. He took a shower maybe once a year. At the same time, he was fastidiously clean about cooking.

HEARST IMPRESSIONS


While Beale was a loner, Hearst was also a grump. When Katherine Hepburn ignored his invitation to his party, she was never invited again. He threw people off the premises when they got a little too inebriated.

Beale is said to have liked animals more than people, and statuary of small rodents and fossils are strewn about the property, stuck haphazardly or purposely onto arches and steps with cement or baking soda and flour. Hearst also loved animals. In fact, he created a personal zoo with three animal compounds and at one time amassed the world’s largest collection of living creatures. Today, generations of zebras, sheep, and deer roam the castle estate from the original animal ancesters.
Dinner in the early days was served on exquisite china, but paper napkins were used, not cloth ones. Our docent told us that Hearst’s mother died of influenza, and he was afraid of germs.

On every tour, visitors are wowed with the viewing of Hearst’s two lavish pools. The outdoor one is the 94 by 104-feet Neptune Pool which was hardly ever used because his guests didn’t know how to swim. Indoors, he built the Roman pool, decorated with blue and gold one-inch mosaic tiles and eight Roman statues which took 3 years to construct because of the massive detail involved.

Because there is so many antiques throughout the premises, visitors are not allowed to use flash on their cameras on the inside or outside. At Nit Wit, you can use flash photography anywhere you want. And on the Hearst tour, tourists are asked not to step on the expensive carpets but to stay on the runners. At Nit Wit, we didn’t have to worry about treading on O’Malley’s antique wood and cement flooring. We just had to make sure we didn’t fall down or trip over any of the rocks or beer cans.

I would highly recommend going to pay a visit to both castles where you can learn about the homes and, more importantly, the men who built them. Most of us are not as eccentric as Beale and Hearst were, but you have to admit that their passion, drive, and zest for life is a rare commodity.

****

NOTEWORTHY INFO:


Hearst Castle
Hwy 1
San Simeon
Call 800/444-445 or reserve tours online www.hearstcastle.com

Nit Wit Ridge
881 Hillcrest Drive,
Cambria
Call for reservations 805/927-2690

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