Event Designer Turns Fantasy Into Form in Spare Time -- Hearst Castle Replica Nears Completion After 16 Years and Now Looking for a Home

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Blend such common everyday ingredients as toothpicks, kitchen scourin pads, sand, foamcore and modeling clay with the imagination of miniature model maker and event designer Thom Neighbors, and the result is an impressive miniature model of one of America's most stunning architectural wonders, the Hearst Castle.

Blend such common everyday ingredients as toothpicks, kitchen scouring pads, sand, foamcore and modeling clay with the imagination of miniature model maker and event designer Thom Neighbors, and the result is an impressive miniature model of one of America’s most stunning architectural wonders, the Hearst Castle.

Neighbors, A southern California native and resident, first visited San Simeon as a 13 year old. “I’ve always been fascinated by architectural miniatures and designing a miniature model of Hearst Castle was one way I could possess it, so to speak.”

Positioned on a 4 foot by 8 foot plywood board in Neighbors’ art studio, his Hearst Castle miniature model is a 1/16th scale version of the original compound commissioned in the early 20th century by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst and designed by architect Julia Morgan.

And like the real life Hearst Castle, which was never completed, Neighbors’ miniature model version continues to be a work in progress. After 16 years, Neighbors continues to spend at least 1 hour daily putting on finishing touches.

The firm is an award-winning, full-service event planning and production company specializing in staging corporate functions nationwide. In addition, Bravo Productions creates custom and oversized props, theatrical sets, scenery and miniatures for films, events, commercial productions and trade shows.

Neighbors began his Hearst Castle project by first researching books available on both the Castle’s architecture and owner, setting to work only after carefully studying blueprints and countless photos of the original, including more than one dozen in-person visits to ensure authenticity. “Part of the challenge was to work only from materials readily accessible to the public,” he says.

With each inch representing 16 feet, Neighbors faced the challenge of constructing many of the figures in miniscule proportion. “The sculptures in the gardens, for example, were extremely challenging because they’re so small – in fact, they stand only three-eighths of an inch tall. ‘The Three Graces’ is one of the best known, and I crafted them out of floral wire and a bit of modeling clay.”

Neighbors reports that friends and entertainment industry colleagues who have seen his miniature San Simeon are often as charmed and fascinated by his clever use of materials as they are by the size of the project.

Trees have been fashioned out of green kitchen scouring pads, roof tiles from pine needles, modeling clay for natural rock formations and sculpture pieces, and the illusion

of water with Saran wrap.

Although Neighbors’ Hearst Castle model is a personal labor of love, it is not just a hobby for him. Bravo periodically receives assignments to create working models of everything from stage sets to costumed figurines.

“The art of crafting miniature models is perhaps the most specialized area of design” notes Neighbors. “The entertainment industry and architects are the two biggest audiences for this special craft, and we quite often create models as well as detail

sketches to assist our clients and production team in understanding the overall event


Many film and television commercial producers commission a miniature model of a particular scene as a way to control costs. “It would take a studio more than $1 million to recreate the New York subway for a film or commercial shoot, but models cut that cost

to one-tenth the price. Using models also affords a film director more control, especially

when you’re working with explosives. You can’t very well have a train crashing and wreaking havoc in a real New York subway, but with a miniature model anything is possible.

“A miniature model can be invaluable in helping a client visualize what a particular artist concept is going to look like. When we design an oversized prop or display, it’s not unusual for us to construct a miniature model first for client review. In addition, a miniature model ensures that everyone involved in the project is working on the same page.”

The challenge of scaling an actual building or architectural design down to miniature size is all part of the job – and the fun – for Neighbors, who seems never to be stumped for a creative solution when designing a miniature model.

“The outdoor Neptune pool on my Hearst Castle model was very challenging because it had to be supported on spindling columns; however, I put my imagination to work and managed to get the pool position straight and precise by heading to my studio workshop for just the right materials – some wooden toothpicks,” says Neighbors.

Neighbors hopes to complete the model this spring and will begin the search for a permanent home so that the general public might enjoy this re-creation as well.


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Greg Jenkins