Most people in the Inland Empire have heard of or visited the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa. Perhaps you’ve checked out their decorative Christmas lights, tried their famed Sunday Brunch, had a treatment from their luxurious spa, or you may have even stayed in one of their 238 beautifully decorative rooms. But how many of you have heard the story of the Mission Inn or even the famous faces that once visited? People such as Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Henry Ford, Leonardo Di Caprio, Eric Clapton, ZZ Top, Steven Spielberg, Anne Rice, Elizabeth Taylor, Chuck Norris, and even Blink 182.
The history behind the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa dates back to the 1870’s, when Riverside was a tiny agriculture colony. The colony was sent 2 orange trees from Brazil, which Riverside resident Eliza Tibbets began to grow on her property using leftover dishwater. The orange trees grew like crazy and soon the colony found itself in desperate need of water.
Civil War Veteran and Engineer Chris Columbus Miller was called in from Wisconsin and expanded the canal system that ran water from the Santa Ana River to Riverside. C. Miller decided to stay in town, and purchased the land the Mission Inn now sits. He built a small adobe boarding house called the “Glenwood Cottage” (which sat where the Mission Inn pool is now located), and his family moved from Wisconsin to join him.
C. Millers oldest son, Frank Miller, was always considered industrious even opening up a grocery store as a teen. It came as no surprise to his parents that at 23 he bought Glenwood cottage from his father (who as an Engineer had no interest in running a boarding house). That same year he married Isabella Hardenbergh, a Glenwood cottage boarder and Riversides first teacher. Soon after he added an additional 30 rooms to Glenwood cottage to keep up with Riversides expansion.
At this time tourists were flocking to California, brought here by the warm weather, movie stars, and destination hotels such as Hotel Del Coronado. Frank Miller thought he could build the next great destination hotel right in Riverside. Funded primarily by investor Henry Huntington (the very same Henry Huntington, who resided at the famed Huntington Library in San Marino), Frank Miller took his love of the California Missions as his main design plan and asked Architect Arthur Benton to make his dream a reality.
30 years, 4 Architects, and many design plans later the hotel was finally opened in 1902. Frank Miller named St. Francis the Patron Saint of the hotel, and in 1903 President Teddy Roosevelt christened the hotel by replanting the two parent naval orange trees onto the property.
Miller and Benton designed and incorporated the “Raincross” into the hotel in 1908. The Raincross has two elements; the lower portion, consisting of a bell suspended in a trapezoidal wooden frame, copied from the bell tower of Mission San Gabriel. The upper portion (the double cross) is said to be a symbol used by Native Americans of the Southwest to represent a rain god or dragonfly, the latter being a symbol of water and rain. The City of Riverside wanted to buy the symbol, but it is said Frank Miller opted to gift it to the city instead, and now the “Riverside Raincross” is a beloved symbol of the town.
The Miller family loved to travel the world, and tended to pick up various items which they incorporated into the design and/or décor of the hotel. This explains the hodge podge of collections and architectural variances throughout the hotel. After traveling to Japan, and collecting a large Amitahba Buddha from a temple, the “Ho-O-Kan” room was born. Featured in the room is “Riui” an eight-foot bronze dragon, beautiful wood carvings, Oriental lanterns, and ornate statues. Although this room isn’t open to the general public, it is available to rent out!
A trip to Spain inspired the “Spanish Pavilion”, which is now part of the Mission Inn Restaurant. The “Garden of the Bells” directly above the Spanish Pavilion is actually Frank Millers personal collection of bells. His largest and most prized bell can be seen in the front of the hotel, and was a gift from his daughter, Allis. From what I hear, Louis Tiffany (eccentric millionaire and founder of “Tiffany & Co”) wanted to buy the bell, but Miller politely declined. Tiffany was furious and left the hotel, never returning. Years later Miller was in a Tiffany shop, buying something for his wife, when Charles Tiffany approached him and (for some reason) invited him to dinner. No one knows what was said during this dinner, but Miller returned to the hotel with 7 elaborate Tiffany stain-glass windows that now decorate the St. Francis D. Assisi chapel.
The St. Francis D. Assisi chapel is breathtaking. Light flows through the Tiffany stain glass windows onto the rich hand carved wooden choir chairs (recreations of what Miller saw from his travels in Europe). As if that weren’t impressive enough, at the end of this chapel is a breathtaking 18-karat-gold leafed Altar, originally owned by Marquis de Rayas in the 1700’s. This beautiful altar reaches from floor to ceiling, fitting perfectly in the chapel, as well it should. Miller purchased the altar sight unseen on the recommendation of an art collector who had seen this remarkable piece in Mexico. Thinking he could fit the altar in one of his guest rooms to create a small chapel, he was astonished to find a sea of boxes shipped to him, and even more astonished by the altars enormity by the time it was pieced together. Miller love the screen so much, that the St. Francis D. Assisi chapel was built specifically to hold the altar. Yes, you can get married in it, but this non-denominational chapel books up quickly so be prepared to book far in advance.
Outside the St. Fancis D. Assisi chapel is the “Famous Flyers Wall”, dedicated to famous pilots, or people important to the field of navigation. The Millers would invite the individual (or group) to the Mission Inn for a ceremony ending with the person signing copper wings which were hung on the chapel wall, and can still be seen today. Famous Fliers include Amelia Earhart, John Glenn, the Tuskegee Airmen, Charles Lindbergh, and Buzz Aldrin.
Make your way towards the Presidential Lounge and have a drink with the Presidents. Or at least the portraits of the Presidents. Each one of those portraits represents a President who as actually visited the Mission Inn. These Presidents are Richard Nixon, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Theodore Roosevelt, George W. Bush, and Ronald Reagon. Richard Nixon was even married in the Presidential Lounge (Though it wasn’t a lounge then!). If you are in the Presidential Lounge, be sure and check out the “William H. Taft” chair on display, which Frank Miller had specially designed for his ample size. Rumor has it, he wasn’t too pleased.
When Frank died in 1935, his daughter Aliss and her husband ran the hotel until their deaths in 1952-53. After that the hotel went through a series of owners and had a few stylistic changes (mostly upgrades, but the poor hotel was subjected to a 70’s style at one point complete with shag carpets). The City of Riverside even turned it into dorm rooms for UCR students for a while! Around 1985 the Carly Foundation bought the property with hopes of making it a hotel again. After 7 costly years of necessary fire code, plumbing, and earthquake compliance upgrades (and other necessary expenditures) the foundation went bankrupt before the hotel ever opened.
During this time the City of Riverside watched the progress closely. When the Carly Foundation went bankrupt, they immediately tapped Duane Roberts, President of “Butcher Boy” products, creator of the frozen burrito, and Riverside Hometown Hero. Roberts bought the hotel in 1992, opened it, and he and his wife Kelly have been running it ever since.
Today, The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa has an award winning steakhouse, Mexican Cantina, “Mission Inn Restaurant” (home of the famed Sunday Brunch), Italian Bistro, Presidential Lounge, and a wine bar. Please check the website for dining or room reservations.
The stories of the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa and too numerous for one article and would take a ton of books to complete the tale (and there are! Check out the gift shop for great books on the Mission Inn). The best way to learn is to take a docent tour like I did! I’d like to give a big shout out to my wonderful docent Joyce, a volunteer with the Mission Inn Foundation. Tours are $13 for adults, 12 and under are free. Check website for more information. A few last interesting facts- Frank Miller gifted the City of Riverside “Mt. Rubidoux” and is buried at the Evergreen Cemetery. In the rotunda is a a tile dedicated to Andrew Carnegie, who’s financial support helped launch the first peace conference at the Mission Inn in 1911. Duane and Kelly Roberts still remain active contributors to the World Affairs Council. The Roberts daughter, Casey (winner of Cupcake Wars & Pepperdine University graduate), owns “Caseys Cupcakes” which is attached to the hotel (one of 6 locations).
The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa is located at 3649 Mission Inn Avenue.
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