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Phoebe Hearst Remembered As Premier UC Benefactor

By Steven Finacom
Wednesday April 20, 2011 - 12:11:00 PM
After the opening reception, curator William Roberts showed Kevin Starr a portion of the exhibit in the Bernice Brown Gallery in UC Berkeley’s Doe Library.
Steven Finacom
After the opening reception, curator William Roberts showed Kevin Starr a portion of the exhibit in the Bernice Brown Gallery in UC Berkeley’s Doe Library.
Phoebe Hearst in 1899, when she moved to Berkeley to be near the University.
San Francisco Examiner, 1899
Phoebe Hearst in 1899, when she moved to Berkeley to be near the University.
Will Hearst, Phoebe’s great-grandson, accepted a copy of the Hearst Architectural Plan publication at the opening reception for the exhibit.
Steven Finacom
Will Hearst, Phoebe’s great-grandson, accepted a copy of the Hearst Architectural Plan publication at the opening reception for the exhibit.
Phoebe Hearst rented this recently built house at Channing and Piedmont in Berkeley when she came to live near the University in 1899.  She soon commissioned Bernard Maybeck to build a substantial social hall next door.
San Francisco Examiner, 1899
Phoebe Hearst rented this recently built house at Channing and Piedmont in Berkeley when she came to live near the University in 1899. She soon commissioned Bernard Maybeck to build a substantial social hall next door.
The exhibit includes this whimsical “double-spouted whistling jar”, circa 800 AD, depicting a monkey, acquired during a Hearst-funded expedition to Peru in 1905, and now in the Hearst Museum collections.
Steven Finacom
The exhibit includes this whimsical “double-spouted whistling jar”, circa 800 AD, depicting a monkey, acquired during a Hearst-funded expedition to Peru in 1905, and now in the Hearst Museum collections.

“Hearst” is a name known to almost anyone in Berkeley. Not only is there Hearst Avenue, running almost all the way across town, but also familiar facilities including the Hearst Memorial Mining Building, Hearst Greek Theatre, and Hearst Museum bracket the UC Berkeley campus.  

It’s been that way—“Hearst” on everyone’s lips, in one context or another—for more than a century. 

However, the most prominent person behind that name, at least in its Berkeley connection, has receded into history. Today, Phoebe Apperson Hearst is not the ubiquitously known and revered figure she was in early 20th century California. 

A new exhibit in the Bernice Brown Gallery of the Doe Library on the Berkeley campus aims to bring her back into popular familiarity and focus.  

Curated by retired University Archivist William Roberts, combining resources from the University Archives and Hearst Museum of Anthropology on the campus, and additionally supported by the College of Letters and Science, the exhibit, “Building Berkeley: The Legacy of Phoebe Apperson Hearst”, opened this past Friday just in time for Cal Day and will run through August 31. 

A small Friday evening gathering in the Morrison Library adjacent to the Brown Gallery featured remarks by Chancellor Birgeneau, Will Hearst (William Randolph Hearst, III), one of Phoebe’s great grandsons, and a number of academic leaders, as well as a spirited impromptu commentary by noted California historian Kevin Starr. 

Phoebe Hearst was “one of the University’s most important benefactors”, said Birgeneau. “Her legacy was, and remains, building Berkeley.” 

The Chancellor, who has invested much energy in increasing student diversity on the campus, quipped that Hearst was “the matriarch of Access and Excellence.” 

He noted he was a student at Yale when that institution decided to admit women for the first time. UC had admitted women in the 1870s, and Phoebe Hearst had later strengthened the place of women students at Berkeley by funding a series of women-only scholarships that became known as “Phoebes”. 

“Hearst was a full century ahead of the times”, Birgeneau said. 

“From the beginning, Berkeley has always existed because of public / private partnerships” like that of Hearst and the University, he noted. He praised her “great leadership in the 19th century” and said that the architectural plan she funded for the campus was “one of the catalysts that make Berkeley the great campus it is today.” 

University Librarian Tom Leonard also spoke, noting that Hearst academic benefactions were still producing results. Only five years previously the Library had received the last of the Tebtunis Papyri collected in Egypt on an expedition Hearst funded in 1899.  

Leonard described Doe Library, where the gathering was held, as “another monument to Hearst’s vision” and a key element of the architectural plan she funded for the campus. Doe will turn 100 years old in 2012 and a Centennial celebration is being planned. 

At the same time, the new Hearst exhibit will allow “many thousands of people to get to know Phoebe Hearst better.” “I think she would be very pleased this afternoon”, Leonard said. 

“I think the family is enormously proud of the association” of the Hearsts and Berkeley, said Will Hearst, Phoebe’s great-grandson. “This is really kind of our mother ship” for family philanthropy. 

He was one of three Hearst descendants who attended the opening. The others were Anissa Balson and her daughter, Phoebe Balson. 

“It’s not hard to be enthusiastic about Berkeley,” Will Hearst said. “This is a great institution.” “The University is really the seed corn of a society.” 

“I’m particularly encouraged that the vocabulary of private and public is more emphasized”, he added. “The private sector is going to have to step up and do more”, as the University suffers from State budget cuts. 

Hearst noted that the gathering “includes my old professor Kevin Starr. I’ll see you at office hours later,” he said, to laughter. 

College of Letters and Science Executive Dean, Professor Mark Richards, told the gathering, “there’s so much to say about the Hearst legacy.” He reminisced that when he first came to Berkeley to join the faculty, a colleague took him to look at the Hearst Memorial Mining Building and told him, “Phoebe Hearst built this University better than anyone else.”  

“Phoebe Hearst set a level of aspiration for this land grant university”, Richards said. She believed Berkeley “was supposed to be just as good as Harvard or Cambridge, or the great universities of Europe…and if you look around you, you’ll see that it is.” 

Richards said that if he had lived a century ago and had a similar fortune to hers and decided how to spend it on the University of California, “I’m afraid that I would fall short of the power of her vision.” 

“It’s a pleasure to be here tonight”, said Rosemary Joyce, the Director of the Hearst Museum. “It really is a brilliant exhibit.” “If we leave any kind of an exhibition wishing we could see more, it’s a success. Thank you”, she said to the curators and exhibit organizers. 

“I’ve spent an enormous amount of time reading her letters”, Joyce said of Phoebe Hearst, the namesake of her institution. “I personally will always be grateful to her.” 

“Mrs. Hearst envisioned the institution as a cultural center”, she added. “She was a teacher. She must have been a wonderful teacher”, and she “was interested in understanding the culture of others.” 

Hearst believed “the museum should be dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge among the many, and to give the people of California every educational advantage.” “She was truly a century ahead of her time”, Joyce concluded, echoing Will Hearst. 

After the formal remarks, Kevin Starr was induced to come to the podium and make a few comments. “I’m unprepared”, he initially protested, but then went on to talk movingly about Phoebe Hearst for several minutes. 

“I feel that I know her.” Starr said, recalling Hearst as the young Phebe (sic) Apperson, “teaching herself to read French” in Missouri. “She had the benefit of the same education Abraham Lincoln had”, he observed; basic schooling in a rural region, plus whatever she could learn on her own.  

In her adult years, with the money to travel and see the world, associations with educators, and support for the University, “she absolutely relished that life long education” opportunity. 

Although a rich woman for most of her life, “she never became trapped into becoming the ‘Great Mrs. Hearst’,” Starr emphasized. “She never lost that small ‘d’ democratic streak”. “Actually, capital ‘D’ Democratic, too” he added, to laughter. 

Phoebe Hearst was, Starr concluded, one of the women who were essentially founders of the State of California. 

After the remarks, University officials presented Will Hearst with an original edition of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Architectural Plan for the Berkeley campus.  

The group then adjourned to informal conversation, and a gallery tour of the exhibit by Curator William Roberts. 

The exhibit occupies several low glass covered cabinets and two large display cases in the stately, columned, Bernice Lane Brown Gallery, the main formal entrance hallway into Doe Library.  

Roberts put together a varied array of materials. Some are biographical, tracing Phoebe’s life. Most have something to do with her long support for the University of California. 

Although most of the materials are works on paper—letters, telegrams, newspaper articles, reports, photographs—Roberts created visual interest in the exhibit by interspersing various artifacts.  

They include whimsical ceramics collected in Peru by the Uhle expedition funded by Hearst, the drawing instruments of University Supervising Architect John Galen Howard who was hired to implement the Hearst Architectural Plan, and a ceremonial silver trowel used at the groundbreaking for the Hearst Memorial Mining Building. The trowel bears, in Latin, an inscription that reads “From Wife to Husband.” 

Parts of one case are devoted to an exploration of the origins of campus plans at Berkeley and the elaborate Hearst Architectural Competition that, at the end of the 19th century, set the University on the road to international notability and a grand, neo-classical, campus. 

Other cases explore the enormous variety of Hearst’s gifts to the University, starting in 1891 with a promise to fund a series of scholarships for deserving women students.  

A partial list I gleaned from the exhibit shows the breath of her interests and benefactions.  

Phoebe funded programs in anthropology and archaeology. Research and collecting expeditions went with her support to Peru, Guatemala, rural California, the American Midwest and Southwest, and even her home state of Missouri. She made personal gifts of artifacts from the South Pacific, Alaska, the Etruscan region of Italy, and the Philippines. 

Collections she assembled accumulated in new buildings she funded on the Berkeley campus. Her gifts ranged from Sioux Indian artifacts to “forty-eight Roman marbles, selected in Italy…” to paintings of early Californian pioneers. 

Astronomers at UC’s Lick Observatory benefited from a swimming pool, a car she bought so they could reach their mountaintop posts more efficiently, and an eclipse expedition to Chile funded by her. The architectural library on campus was seeded with her gifts.  

She paid the salary for the University’s physician for women students and her assistant, financed music concerts and dramatic productions at Berkeley, and stepped in when fundraising campaigns fell short for campus features like the Class of 1910 Bridge. She even gave money to help build Senior Men’s Hall, despite the exclusion of women from its use. 

The 1902 President’s Report for the University noted, “In such countless ways has Mrs. Hearst shown her sympathetic and inspiring friendship for the University, and so little has her right hand known what the left has done, that a complete enumeration of her beneficences is impossible.” 

Her touch seemed everywhere on campus and it was very personal. Phoebe Hearst was known for hearing about a financial problem at a meeting of the Regents, and soon sending a check to alleviate it (one suspects that University administrators might have, on occasion, taken advantage of this generosity, seeding their reports to The Regents and discussions at meetings with laments about this or that financial need.)  

Hearst rented a house at Channing Circle—and later built another—in Berkeley and spent much time in town hosting receptions, visiting with students—particularly the young women—and nurturing programs for community support.  

She financed the Hearst Domestic Industries that employed financially needy women students, and funded the West Berkeley Settlement House where students went to provide education and services for poor immigrant residents. 

The exhibit also touches on Phoebe Hearst’s rich personal life. She traveled extensively, was involved in many organizations, and causes, and was in great demand for both social and charitable events.  

Her interests ranged far and wide. There are public facilities named for Phoebe Hearst from a library in South Dakota to an elementary school in Louisiana. 

Last year on a visit to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, I was pleased and surprised to see in an exhibit that she was a Regent of the organization that saved and operated that monument and gave money for practical improvements there, including hiring Mr. Edison to electrify the place.  

UC students, faculty, and dignitaries were entertained on a regular basis both at her Berkeley homes. Whole chartered trains were sometimes required to convey her guests from Berkeley to one of her elaborate and eclectic country homes, Hacienda del Pozo de Verona, in Pleasanton.  

Roberts included in the exhibit pages from her appointment calendar detailing many of her multitude of commitments. 

But the most evocative entry might be this short one, from a random Tuesday afternoon. Hearst noted, “Visits. Calls. Shopping. Many duties.” The life of a woman of means, money, and many interests. 

One of the most interesting parts of the exhibit is a series of newspaper articles and photographs detailing her construction, on Channing Way, of an imaginative wooden reception hall, designed by Bernard Maybeck.  

It was soon dismantled and moved to a site adjacent to the Berkeley campus, where it became Hearst Hall, the women’s gymnasium. When it burned in the early 1920s, it was a catalyst for the construction of the much more elaborate Hearst Gymnasium. 

When Hearst’s son, William Randolph Hearst, paid for Hearst Gym he also proposed an elaborate, interconnected, series of other buildings and memorials to his mother. She had, a note in the exhibit mentions, said during her last illness that she would like to go ahead and finance a University Museum in her name.  

The memorial her son proposed—but ultimately did not fund, beyond the gymnasium element—would have included that museum, just across the street from where today’s Berkeley Art Museum would rise half a century later. And her name would ultimately go to the anthropology museum on campus. 

Soon after her death, the Academic Senate on the Berkeley campus passed a resolution that concluded, “Whereas, we as a faculty and individually have recognized the embodiment of all that is good, gentle, lovable and womanly in Mrs. Phoebe Apperson Hearst, therefore be it Resolved: that the faculty of the University of California will cherish the ideals fostered by Mrs. Phoebe Apperson Hearst, striving to emulate her noble example, and will forever revere her memory.” 

The Hearst name is indeed revered and remembered, but in more than 90 years since her death, the exact identity of “Phoebe Hearst” has faded from the campus consciousness, morphing into the more generic “Hearst” this and “Hearst” that, with no detailed appreciation of the person behind the name.  

There’s a University administrator who tells with both humor and chagrin a story of recently going to a reception and meeting a student who was a recipient of one of the scholarships Phoebe Hearst funded. He mentioned what a good benefactor Hearst had been to the campus. 

“Is she here?” asked the student, having no idea that the donor whose gift was helping to pay her education set the scholarship wheels in motion more than a century ago. 

Now, at least, that student—and her classmates—has the opportunity to find their way to Doe Library and learn in detail about Phoebe Hearst. The “gentle mother of the University” and the “fairy godmother” of the campus may, at last, come back into her own. 

A Phoebe Hearst Primer: 

Born December 3, 1842, in Missouri, Phoebe Apperson was only 19 and a schoolteacher when a much older family friend, George Hearst, returned newly rich from California and courted her. They were married June 15, 1862 in Missouri and she returned west with him. 

Making their home in San Francisco, Phoebe supported her husband in his business and political endeavors. They had one child, William Randolph, who traveled in Europe with his mother and went to Harvard. The family fortune grew from mining and land investments, and George Hearst became a Senator from California.  

Phoebe set up a home for them in Washington D.C, serving as a political hostess. When George died in 1891 he left the family fortune to her, not to son Willie, who was already dabbling in journalism and politics and showing signs of the expansive collecting and building instincts that would mark his adult life.  

Phoebe was the first woman appointed to the UC Board of Regents in 1897, not long after another Bay Area power couple, Jane and Leland Stanford, established a private University in Palo Alto.  

For most of three decades after her husband died Phoebe managed the family funds and spent them not only on her son’s interests but also on a wide range of her own charitable, scientific, and philanthropic causes.  

Her interests were particularly focused on improving the lives of women and children, and promoting education. She helped establish the practice of American kindergarten education, supported the creation of what would become the PTA, and sympathized with the campaign for Women’s Suffrage, the right to vote. 

She had homes in Pleasanton, San Francisco, and Berkeley, and a country estate designed like a castle near Mount Shasta. In 1919, she died at the age of 76 at her Pleasanton estate. She was buried in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma, south of San Francisco.  

Several facilities and programs on the UC Berkeley campus currently bear the Hearst name. They include: the Hearst Memorial Mining Building, paid for by Phoebe as a memorial to her husband, George; the Hearst Greek Theatre, funded by William Randolph at her suggestion; the Hearst Gymnasium, built by her son as a memorial to her; the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, honoring her many years of varied donations of artifacts, art, and research funds and salaries to the anthropology and archaeology programs of the University. 

For more details on the exhibit, see: 

For more on the University Architectural Plan Phoebe Hearst funded, and the monument once planned in her honor, see: