Riverside’s Mission Inn is a magical place to visit
I mention the town of Riverside from time to time in my travel chronicles. And there’s a good reason for that: I was born and raised there. I resided in the town bordering the Santa Ana River – from which it takes its name – for three decades until I left for the High Desert.
It was a great city to grow up in. Lots to do and with all the highways going in every direction, this centralized location was connected to everywhere.
“Let’s go to the beach,” a friend once said.
“Well then,” I replied. “We’re just going to hop on 91 and head west, like Samuel Clemens did.”
A week later the same friend – I only had one at the time – said we should go drive buggies in the desert.
“Well then,” I replied. “We’re just going to hop on 60 and head east like Samuel Clemens did when he got home.”
Thus, Riverside proved to be a very central hub from which to reach other popular Southern California locations.
Whenever I travel to the region, fond and sometimes less pleasant memories flood my skull. I’ve shared some of the likes in previous columns and those that don’t will never see a print.
Some things are better not to write down – maybe like a text message after a night out drinking a few adult drinks. But I digress.
The Spanish architecture of the Mission Inn is one of those fond memories. A visitor cannot help but gaze in wonder at the immensity and beauty of the inn.
The Mission Inn opened in 1903, but the history of the place dates back to 1874, when CC Miller opened a small boarding house in what was then the center of a growing town called Riverside.
Miller had moved with his family from Tomah, Wisconsin, and had begun working as a civil engineer on various water supply systems in the area. Miller saw the potential for a small but cozy place where people could rest for the night as they traveled through the area or came to establish a permanent residence just 54 miles east of Los Angeles.
In 1880, Miller’s son, Frank Augustus Miller, purchased his father’s property and intended to expand it into something truly special.
With the help of Arthur Benton, a well-respected architect, they dreamed of creating a centerpiece for downtown Riverside.
But sometimes those dreams cost quite a few moola-boola, which Frank was a bit short of at the time. To the rescue came funds from railroad bigwig Henry Huntington, who seemed to enjoy helping out when big projects were underway.
“Hmph,” they say, Huntington snorted. “Frankie-boy, I’ll lend you some money if you can guarantee that some presidents of the United States will one day come here and marvel at the inn.”
Frank is said to have said, “Consider it a deal, Henry.” A little-known fact, however, was that someone may have seen Frank’s fingers crossed behind his back as he made this statement to Huntington.
The history of the California missions had begun to pique the interest of tourists around this time and Frank decided on the Mission Revival style for this inn he was going to build.
Both Frank and Arthur Benton studied the designs for each of the 21 missions stretching from San Diego in the south to San Francisco in the north to come up with their design.
The first section of the Mission Inn opened in 1903 and builders continued to expand until 1931.
There were four wings to the structure. The Mission Inn engulfed an entire city block and consisted of turrets, arches, open-air gardens, spiral staircases, catacombs, and many other examples of unique architecture from not only Mission styles , but also places that Frank had visited in Europe and Asia.
It was a sort of eclectic hotel created by a man who had visions of wonder that he wanted to share with his guests.
People have looked in awe at all the art projects and seemingly otherworldly decor that Frank and his family have assembled inside the inn.
The Mission Inn turned out to be a place to visit and enjoy. Business exploded.
Again, growing up in Riverside, I’ve visited the Mission Inn more times than I can count – again, math was never my strong suit, but it’s safe to say I’m there went more than once.
“We should go for a drive,” I told my ever-adventurous wife, Laureen.
“Count me in,” she replied.
“Don’t you want to know where we’re going?”
She did not do it. She is sometimes content simply to let me choose the destination. But she was pleasantly surprised when I took the downtown Riverside exit.
“Love the Mission Inn.”
I knew she did and I knew she never tired of wandering the lands of this wonderful treasure in my hometown.
The history of the inn, however, has had dark times. In 1935 Frank Miller died and his family continued to run the business for two decades. But with the popularity of Palm Springs and other celebrity hotspots opening up in Southern California, the Mission Inn’s tourist trade has faded.
“Ugh”, a Hollywood starlet was once heard in 1950, “Why would I go to the Mission Inn, when I can travel to Palm Springs and lay by the pool while getting the color of a lobster ?”
In 1956, the Mission Inn was sold to Benjamin Swig, a successful San Francisco hotelier. He intended to revitalize the inn, and sold nearly 1,000 works of art and artifacts the Millers had collected over the decades, and redecorated it in a more modern style.
“Yeah, take down that Monet of the Woman with the Parasol and replace it with a nice Campbell’s Soup Cloth. It will attract tourists,” Swig said maybe or not.
The reinvention did not work and the guests did not return.
Swig sold the hostel, then it was resold, and finally it was turned into a hotel with private apartments and dormitories.
“You know,” I told Laureen. “I actually had a friend who rented a room here.”
“Did you have a friend?”
“I made that part up,” I replied.
We walked through the lobby and chatted about this and that about our previous visits. The inn is a wonderful history lesson for a visitor. There are colorful tapestries depicting the 21 California missions, there are portraits of American presidents who have stayed at the inn – Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon (who married there) and William Howard Taft, who had it made a chair especially for him. A note here, Taft’s chair is rather tall – I’m just saying. I seem to remember that at least three of our little girls sat there together.
Other well-known people have stayed at the Inn – Henry Ford, Joseph Pulitzer, Clark Gable, Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, Amelia Earhart, and the list goes on and on.
But prospects weren’t bright for the Mission Inn in the 1950s and 1960s, so a group of concerned volunteer citizens established the Friends of the Mission Inn in 1969. Their goal was to preserve historic collections of artifacts in the hostel, as well as to promote the hotel.
However, financial problems continued to plague the historic site, and in 1976 the City of Riverside Redevelopment Agency purchased the Inn. After the purchase, local authorities and local citizens banded together and had the Mission Inn designated as a National Historic Landmark by the federal government.
In 1985, the city sold the resort to a Wisconsin development corporation, which closed the inn for a seven-year renovation.
“You know, I heard a story when the hostel was closed,” I told Laureen. “Young men sneaked around and explored the place for hours. Even ventured into the catacombs undetected.
“And who exactly were these young men? she asked accusingly.
“Oh, look at the presidential lounge,” I said changing the subject. “Can I offer you some refreshment?”
Renovations were completed in 1988, but no buyer could be found for the inn. That is, until Duane Roberts, a local and fairly successful entrepreneur, bought the property in 1992.
Duane, along with Kelly, his wife and co-owner, have made the Mission Inn exactly what Frank Miller always wanted – a uniquely beautiful destination for those visiting Riverside. A place where there is elegance, charm, history, but at the same time a welcoming atmosphere for all.
One of the traditions we share with friends and family is visiting during the Festival of Lights display, during the Christmas season. The hostel has around a billion lights tastefully scattered throughout the complex. It gives the whole place a magically wonderful feeling.
But throughout the year, the hostel offers many other special events for all to enjoy.
The Mission Inn is definitely a place to visit and soak up the historical beauty.
The Roberts, along with the Mission Inn Foundation and Friends of the Mission Inn, strive to continue the history of not only the Inn, but that of the entire town of Riverside.
Leaving the Mission Inn, Laureen turned to me and said, “What a great trip. I love this place, and by the way, who were these young men who sneaked into the catacombs? »
For more information: missioninn.com
Contact John R. Beyer at [email protected]