"Alright! Time to Party!" by Jake Purcell

Hearst everywhere

Cash and the promise of some truly out-there ravings from the wealthy and opinionated William Randolph Hearst as his poor architectural choices and hundreds of millions of dollars of debt caught up with him have lured Brianna and me to California for ten research-heavy days. So far, not so bad! I took a cab directly from SFO to the University of California at Berkeley, where the Environmental Design Archives were about to close for the remainder of our trip. The archivist had generously agreed to let me riffle through the papers of Hearst architect Julia Morgan (more about her as often as possible) and concrete enthusiast Walter Steilberg (at least a recurring character) for a couple of hours, if only I could get there before closing. I do not recommend this effective but very expensive way of adding drama to historical research.

Then, we spent three days rummaging through the just so beautifully organized William Randolph Hearst papers at the Bancroft Library. An archivist told us to "have fun kids" and "woo party time!" as we left on Friday, which I would say was not how that day ended, though we did pay a breathtaking six-dollar cover charge to get into a gay bar at 10 p.m.

We're primarily in California to research the collecting habits of publishing magnate, would-be politician, and noted nationalist William Randolph Hearst and his many associates and organizations. Hearst brought a huge amount of architectural material from Europe to the U.S. and back to spiff up his New York apartment, the Hilltop residence at San Simeon, the fairytale-manor Wyntoon, estates in Mexico, and a castle in Wales. Finding, buying, shipping, and storing objects required a huge network of architects, engineers, advisers, buyers, overseers, secretaries, and accountants, especially since Hearst does not seem to have made much distinction among these various posts when issuing instructions. (The formation of two corporations, the International Studio Art Corporation and the Sunical Land and Packing Company, to iron out the process did help a little.) The papers of Hearst, Julia Morgan, and Walter Steilberg, as well as the research files of Morgan biographer Sarah Boutelle, reveal a lot of the nitty gritty of how decisions were made about what medieval buildings to buy and how to get them from Europe to the U.S.

So far, Hearst's papers have contained the usual combination of extremely banal (confirmation that affidavits were signed, people repeatedly asking if Hearst ever actually purchased that one thing and if so why can they not find it oh god where is it oh he never bought it), human dramas (a heartbreaking cold-call letter to Hearst informing him that his secretary has stolen the letter writer's husband), and unexpected side plots (Hearst's decade-long hatred for one of his employees, who somehow never gets fired). We'll be writing many of these up into blog posts in their own right, though probably not the one about the woman whose life was destroyed.

Tomorrow, we hop in a car and head a few hours south to San Luis Obispo. On the way, we'll stop by San Simeon, Hearst's castle, to see if we can find the warehouse (still full of historical treasures?) or the old, disaster-ridden bear pits. Wish us luck.

An Introduction by Jake Purcell

A little history: In the summer of 2015, Brianna and I made some research trips to Florida and California to see a couple of medieval buildings that had been moved, stone by stone, from Europe to the U.S. We devoted several months of our lives to tracking down as many examples of this phenomenon as we could, threw ourselves into a few archives, sent a hapless “intern” to Milwaukee with a camera (thanks, Emma!), and eventually created this beautiful, well-produced, long-form monstrosity with the help of some new friends at Atlas Obscura.

We knew we weren’t quite done with the project. For one, our funding from Columbia’s History in Action program, which I administered at the time, stipulated that we had to talk about Medieval America and HiA as often and loudly as possible. For another, we kept finding more and more material, even as we were publishing our first piece, and the details and characters just kept getting better and more compelling: Arthur Byne, forced to come up with ingenious ways to get medieval buildings out of Europe for the indiscriminately rapacious Hearst; George Grey Barnard, whose temperament was so artistic that it even overwhelmed John D. Rockefeller, Jr., into agreeing to a deal; Lillian Rojtman Berkman, a former tractor magnate who could not find a security company she trusted to protect her treasures, and so created her own.

Nobody wanted to be at this airport.

Nobody wanted to be at this airport.

By November, we were a little burnt out. Too much travel, our actual degree requirements and dissertations, and then there were bed bugs – my god, the bed bugs. We did manage to keep Medieval America’s head above water, though. We were brought in we assume as the entertainment portion of last year’s Art and Cultural Heritage Crime Conference. We visited a few archives and battled bureaucrats, mostly to learn more about Barnard’s complicated estate, which was tied up in medieval buildings.

Now, with a fresh infusion of research funding, we’re heading to California this summer to rummage through the papers of Hearst’s shady art-trading company, the International Studio Art Corporation, as well as those of his architect, Julia Morgan. We’re looking for more technical information about Hearst’s collecting practices, and any clues about one Hearst-owned monastery that we have so far been unable to track down. A little later, we’ll head to some Philadelphia archives to investigate Barnard’s estate and whatever back-room deal let the Philadelphia Museum of Art pick up a treasure trove of medieval architecture for a cool $75,000. (We’re still looking for someone to send us on a critical research trip to the monastery in the Bahamas, if you’re in the grant-making mood.)

Check back here or on our Instagram for stories from the archives, tips on navigating some of New York’s more challenging institutions, and updates on whatever we’re dreaming up at Medieval America.