Saturday, February 16, 2008

BEST OF: Building a castle and a school

It’s always a treat to learn more about people who helped shape our hometown.

When historical author Taylor Coffman spoke to about 80 people at the Cambria Historical Society’s annual membership meeting (in 2003), he introduced us to George Loorz, the man who built much of Hearst Castle, along with the Cambria Grammar School, the buildings that are now Robin’s restaurant, Fermentations and Heart Glass gallery, plus several others in Cambria and throughout the county.

Coffman also recalled that the current Robin's restaurant building, which Loorz constructed for Frank and Mabel Souza, had a “basement, which, on occasion, hosted merrymaking, both in the making of hooch and the imbibing of it. Even though I, no old-timer for sure, remember partying in that basement, which is built like a bomb shelter. Another young guy was living there ... and rehearsing his rock-and-roll band in the basement. That bunker did put out some decibels!”

Coffman could only share a fraction of what he knows about the dapper builder. Even his big book, “Building for Hearst and Morgan: Voices from the George Loorz Papers,” can’t contain all that the author has learned about the builder in a decade or so of intensive research.

In Coffman’s own words, from e-mails we exchanged, “Here's some ‘dope’ on George Loorz (that's a term he would have used):

“He was born in 1898 on a farm in Lovelock, Nev., northeast of Reno. The man left the farm to go into World War I, but the farm never left the man. Loorz was an earthy, manly, unpretentious guy all his life. However, he had ambition and an ego as big as a freight train, as his sons would be quick to say. Without that trait, he could scarcely have gone one-on-one with the likes of Hearst for so many years. Not to mention his knack for handling Julia Morgan so successfully,” Coffman conjectured.

“Loorz graduated from Cal Berkeley, School of Engineering (plus he picked up a degree in math for good measure).”

He had three sons, “Don in 1926, Bill in 1928, Bob in 1935. All followed their dad into the family business, namely, the F. C. Stolte Co., in which George held a half-interest. The involvement, and the continuation of Stolte Inc. (as it was renamed during World War II), lasted into the 1970s,” Coffman said.

Grace Loorz (they were married in 1925), also was a native Nevadan. “She briefly worked as a school teacher before becoming a full-time homemaker.” During the years the family lived on the North Coast, she attended Santa Rosa Catholic Church. ”

The Loorz family, based in Berkeley by the 1920s, was connected with Hearst and Julia Morgan beginning in 1927. The family lived fulltime at San Simeon from February 1932 through January 1938” (the six years covered in the book).

“Then they moved to Pacific Grove, and after that back to the Bay Area (Alameda). The ‘Hearst connection,’ in one form or another, lasted a full 20 years, from that first incident in '27 on through 1948. So it goes well past the six years of on-the-job residence at San Simeon itself.”

The book is filled with North Coast tales. For instance, on page 202, Coffman relates how Loorz and a buddy of his went to the Cambria Pines Lodge and got into a "confrontation" of sorts with the locals, some of whom thought W.R. Hearst was a villain.

“Loorz defused the crisis, winningly so, as he was so adept at doing time and again, situation after diverse situation. He was a diplomat and schmoozer par excellence: that's one reason Hearst and Morgan paid him as lavishly as they did: $5,200 a year, plus free rent, was nothing to sneeze at. It was big money, the salary alone being the equivalent of 65 or 70 grand in today's dollars, much of which Loorz was able to salt away for the good of his business partnership with Fred Stolte.

“In addition, Loorz was smart and hard working, not just slick and country-gentlemanly,” Coffman explained. “I've likened him to Jimmy Stewart in the book, that combination of shrewd homespun-ness . . . and native good looks, to boot. It made for a most winning formula, one that Loorz capitalized on to the hilt, but without a trace of cynicism. Today, such a guy would be PC-ed out of existence. He belongs to a bygone era of heroes, our small equivalent in Cambria-San Simeon of Paul Bunyan or John Henry.”

This column first ran in The Cambrian on March 20, 2003.

Note: On Saturday, Marcy, 15, the Cambria Historical Society's annual membership meeting and buffet lunch will be held at noon in Rabobank's meeting room, 1070 Main St. Tickets for members are $15, and $18 for nonmembers (sponsor and benefactor members get in for free). Reservations must be made by March 6. This year's topics are the the history of Highway 1 and the latest news on the society's restoration of the Guthrie-Bianchini house and garden, due to become the town's first historical museum. For details or reservations, call 909-0194 or e-mail

No comments: