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Lady of the House

Phoebe Hearst helped put Pleasanton on the map in the early 1900s


When Phoebe Apperson Hearst began living outside Pleasanton at the turn of the last century, the town consisted of a bank, three hotels, and not much else.

Hearst brought sophistication to Pleasanton’s Wild West landscape, and she is still revered locally and nationally for her philanthropy. Indeed, a public elementary school, opened in town in 2001, was named after her to honor her contribution to education.

"These days, if you say Hearst, people think of William Randolph," says Ira Jacknis, a research anthropologist with the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. "But Phoebe was a notable figure in her own right. She was pretty enlightened, pretty sophisticated, and very progressive for her time."Hearst’s path to Hacienda del Pozo de Verona, the showplace she built on the edge of Pleasanton, started modestly.

She was born in 1842 to parents who ran a small farm in rural Missouri. Educated in a one-room schoolhouse, she became a schoolteacher for children whose parents worked at a local ironworks.

She and her husband-to-be, George Hearst, a mining entrepreneur, grew up in the same county. Nevertheless, when she married him in 1862, they made an odd couple. She was 19, and he was 41. She was small and slight; he was tall and broad. She was a proper, devoutly religious Victorian schoolmarm. He lacked formal education and liked to drink and spit tobacco.

"My husband is not a member of any church and comes so near to being an infidel it makes me shudder," she confided to her diary.

Not surprisingly, Hearst struggled in the marriage. To compensate, she turned to her only child, William Randolph, the future media magnate, who was born in 1863 after the Hearsts moved to San Francisco. She hoped to rear a cultured son who could move easily in society, but he was headstrong and shared his father’s disdain for decorum.

While struggling to rein in her son, Hearst pursued philanthropic interests. She started kindergartens for the poor, helped establish the National Congress of Mothers (which later became the National Parent Teacher Association), and was a major donor to UC Berkeley.

"One biographer speculates that both Hearst’s early training as an educator and her unfulfilled desire to have more children were the impetus for her philanthropic efforts in education," explains Keri Collins, a curatorial associate at Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

Her relationship with her son, which continued to be contentious, also led her to build her Pleasanton hacienda. Her husband bought the 500-acre property in 1886 but died shortly thereafter, in 1891. William Randolph then started to convert the ranch house on the property into a hunting lodge.

Hearst feared that her son was going to use it to entertain his rough friends, so she took over the project. She also wanted more than a hunting lodge. A long-time supporter of women’s advancement, she hired Julia Morgan, the first female architecture student at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the first licensed female architect in California.

It would take more than a decade to complete Hearst’s mansion, but it ended up being one of the most magnificent homes in America. Hacienda del Pozo de Verona was named after a 15th-century carved-stone wellhead (pozzo means well in Italian) that William Randolph had shipped from Verona, Italy. The house was a showcase from the moment a visitor stepped into its large entry courtyard and was greeted by the sight of the ornate wellhead serving as a large fountain. Inside, Hearst exhibited her massive collection of artwork and furniture, as well as artifacts from around the world that she picked up on her travels.

The main building was three stories and had more than 50 rooms. One of the fireplaces was large enough to spit-roast a whole ox. The estate’s playhouse, designed for Hearst’s five grandchildren, rose two stories high and contained 13 rooms, billiard tables, and several reading rooms.

The list of guests over the years included royalty, artists, composers, presidents, and movie stars from far and wide.

Hearst used the house as a base of operations for her busy family and philanthropic life until she died in 1919. A few years later, William Randolph sold the house to a group of businessmen who developed Castlewood Country Club, and the house served as the original clubhouse until it was destroyed by fire in 1969.

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