One recent morning, a dozen Barbary sheep started to shamble across the main road to Hearst Castle, then stopped in the middle.
And why not? They hadn’t seen a loaded tour bus on that road since March.

As the state wages a seesaw battle against the coronavirus, the castle’s keepers confront the challenge of reopening a historic site that depends on bus transportation and has no air filtration system. Nobody is sure when California’s most famous mansion will reopen, including Dan Falat, superintendent of the California State Parks district that includes the castle.

Casa Grande, the main residence at Hearst Castle, has 30 fireplaces, 38 bedrooms and 42 bathrooms.

Casa Grande, the main residence at Hearst Castle, has 30 fireplaces, 38 bedrooms and 42 bathrooms.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

The castle stands about 230 miles northwest of Los Angeles, halfway to San Francisco, a location that helped, until now, make it a prime tourist attraction for decades.

Detail of ironwork over Casa Grande front door at Hearst Castle.

Detail of the ironwork over the front door of Casa Grande at Hearst Castle.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

At its Roman Pool, where 1,800 tourists per day no longer pass by, the freshly scrubbed tiles have never looked bluer. In most of the compound’s 165 artifact-filled rooms, there’s less dust than usual — because, as curator Toby Selyem explained, there aren’t visitors shedding dead skin as they shuffle past.

The castle’s museum director, Mary Levkoff, retired in July with no successor named so far.

Another awkward detail about the castle: “We happen to be in the middle of our 100th anniversary right now,” said Falat, sounding like a groom whose bride has run off with the caterer. “We were actually getting ready to kick it off in April.”

But like millions of other homeowners who have been filling their pandemic days with long-postponed household projects, the team on the Hearst Castle hilltop has a long list of chores.

The dining hall known as the "Refectory" at Hearst Castle.

The dining hall, also known as the Refectory, at Hearst Castle.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Workers are trying to revive and clone an ailing oak tree, to replace rusted iron with stainless steel wherever possible, to power-wash tiles, to pluck ash from pool filters.

They’re also trying to calculate how many COVID-era tourists can safely fit on a 54-seat bus — perhaps 13? maybe 27? — and how many can stand in the grand Assembly Room where publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst once rubbed shoulders with Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Harpo Marx, Joan Crawford and Cecil Beaton.

Others are building new web content, placing plexiglass partitions at visitor center ticket windows and attacking projects that would be difficult or impossible with tourists underfoot.

Hearst Castle, one of California's most popular tourist attractions, has been closed since mid-March.

Social distancing signs and hand sanitizer have been placed in the visitors center at Hearst Castle, which is still closed to guests.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

The traditional museum challenge of balancing preservation and access is now a three-way endeavor: preservation versus access versus public health. (So far, none of Hearst Castle’s more than 100 employees has been laid off, Falat said, and fewer than five have tested positive for the coronavirus.)

The castle is really a 127-acre compound of buildings dominated by Casa Grande, the principal residence, whose exterior resembles a cathedral that’s been smuggled out of southern Europe. Clustered around it are three guest houses; two pools; extensive gardens and tennis courts, all surrounded by the blond hills and stately oaks of the 80,000-acre Hearst Ranch, still owned by Hearst Corp.

Here’s a sampling of what photographer Francine Orr and I found beyond the gates.

The Assembly Room is the room where guests would be greeted by William Hearst for pre-dinner cocktails inside Casa Grande.

William Randolph Hearst would greet guests for pre-dinner cocktails in the Assembly Room in Casa Grande.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

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