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Hearst Castle rings in next phase of historic bell restoration project

The bells in place at Hearst Castle prior to restoration
Courtesy: California State Parks
The bells in place at Hearst Castle prior to restoration

Tours of San Simeon’s Hearst Castle are at a stand-still and have been for the last couple of years due to the ongoing pandemic and recent road construction.

State Parks is taking advantage of this time without visitors to make headway on a project to restore the historic bells at Hearst Castle, called “carillon bells.”

There are 36 bells, 18 in each of the two towers in Casa Grande, the main house at the castle. They were originally cast in bronze and connected to their structural support with iron crowns.

“The bells were finally installed in the Hearst Castle bell towers in 1932, so they’ve been in the bell towers for almost 100 years now,” said California State Parks San Luis Obispo Coast District State Historian Amy Hart.

Hart said the bells were primarily used as entertainment when Hearst’s guests would play songs on the piano. Manual playing mechanisms connecting to the piano struck the bells and created tunes.

When the castle eventually opened to the public, Hart said State Parks played the bells every day at noon until they shut down in the spring of 2020.

“By then, some of the bells had really deteriorated and we weren’t playing the full octaves that are allowed in this carillon system but we had some limited songs that were still available to us to play,” Hart said.

Hart said decades of exposure to the elements on the Central Coast eventually caused the bells to rust and corrode. So, State Parks set out to refurbish them.

Phase I of the project focused on eight of the smallest bells and now they are moving into Phase II.

“This includes the 20 medium sized bells in the carillon system as well as treating all of their support features and playing mechanisms,” Hart said.

She said State Parks is excited to recreate the experience of the iconic bells ringing for visitors.

“If they’ve been lucky enough to visit at a time when we were playing the bells, then I'm sure that was a great part of their experience hearing the bells just as William Randolph Hearst would have during his residence there in the 1930’s,” Hart said.

Hart said she expects Hearst Castle will reopen this year, but the bell restoration project won’t be complete for another two to three years.

Hart estimated the total cost for the project to be more than $200,000, funded mostly by state grants.

Rachel Showalter first joined KCBX as an intern from Cal Poly in 2017. During her time in college, she anchored and reported for Mustang News at Cal Poly's radio station, KCPR. After graduating, she took her first job as a Producer at KSBY-TV. She returned to the KCBX team in October 2020, reporting daily for KCBX News until she moved to the Pacific Northwest in July of 2022. Rachel spends her off-days climbing rocks, cooking artichokes and fighting crosswords with friends.
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