RIVERSIDE, Ca. December, 2011—The Historic Mission Inn Hotel & Spa, a National Historic Landmark, is about an hour’s drive east of Los Angeles.
The annual Festival of Lights in its 19th year beckons thousands of families to enjoy the display of multi-colored bulbs. Disney-like animated elves, angels, nutcrackers and other figures complement costumed carolers, falling snow (weekends) and fireworks.
The Mission Inn, considered the crown jewel of Riverside, avoided bulldozing when local boy turned millionaire, Duane Roberts, bought the property which had fallen into bankruptcy.
Built as a boarding house in 1876 by engineer Christopher Columbus Miller, it was soon sold to his son Frank Augustus Miller. The business-minded, energetic young Frank soon began to expand.
The hotel’s beginnings coincided with development of destination hotels in which the wealthy from back east could spend a month or entire season away from cold winters. The Mission Inn is one of only a few remaining operating hotels in California, along with San Diego’s Hotel Del Coronado and Yosemite’s Wawona Hotel.
While the hotel’s primary style is Mission revival, Miller’s taste in decoration can only be described as eclectic. During the 30-year construction period, he employed three architects and countless artisans.
The Mission Inn Museum offers 75-minute docent-led tours of the property along with a small museum/gift shop.
By far the best way to appreciate the hotel and its history, the following are the top ten tour highlights shared by our guide Joyce Hoopai.
1. Beginning in 1873, Luther Tibbets planted two Brazilian navel orange trees sent by the Department of Agriculture from Washington DC. The story goes that wife Eliza watered the trees with left over dishwater. The trees thrived and produced two large oranges a few years later. By 1882 the citrus industry was thriving in Riverside and neighboring counties.
2. Miller was an avid traveler and art collector. During the construction period, when he saw something he liked, he either bought it or had a copy made for the hotel. Visitors may note of the different patterns in wrought iron fencing along the right front side of the property. While touring Spain, he spotted several pieces he liked and asked the villagers to sell them. They did and were shipped to Riverside.
3. There was never a mission in Riverside; the closest in San Gabriel did provide the model for the bell tower while arches are similar to ones at San Luis Rey.
4. Frank Miller himself designed the Mission Inn logo. The rain cross is a local native pictograph representing water or rain. The double cross shape is meant to be a dragonfly because wherever they saw dragonflies there was water. The bell, of course, represents the missions. The city of Riverside asked Miller if they could purchase the logo but he gave it to them instead, perhaps in expectation of a marketing boost.
5. Many presidents visited the Inn and their portraits line the lobby wall that encloses the Presidential Lounge. President Taft’s picture doesn’t quite reveal his size, 6’4” and near 350 pounds. Miller had a special chair commissioned for him. The chagrined Taft sat in the chair for the event but refused to be photographed in it and did not take it home. The Taft chair in the lobby is now a popular photo location for celebrities, couples and children.
6. Some of the other presidents who did stay: Kennedy, Teddy Roosevelt, George W. Bush, Hoover, Harrison, McKinley and Ford. Ronald Reagan spent his honeymoon with Nancy there and Nixon married wife Pat at the hotel.
7. The hotel’s wedding chapel, St. Francis of Assissi, hosts about 365 weddings a year, generally clustered on weekends. The chapel’s ornate altar, created in the 1700s for a wealthy Mexican family, is cedar covered with beaten golf leaf.
The family lost their fortune and had to sell the piece.
The well-connected Miller, got a cable from an art dealer who spotted the altar being sold in Mexico. She urged him to buy it for $5,000. He said yes but would only send half of the money until it arrived safely across the border. Several months later, the local train station manager called and told him to come quickly and pick up 32 crates because they stank. The disassembled altar had been shipped in crates padded with used stable straw. After unpacking, his staff had to piece together the parts like a jigsaw puzzle. The chapel was custom built to house the altar, a complex tableau of saints, popes, Joseph and Jesus.
8. The chapel’s equally magnificent stained glass windows were acquired from Louis Comfort Tiffany who had stayed at the hotel. Tiffany designed the windows for a Presbyterian church that was later demolished. He got his windows back, per contract agreement and sold them to Miller.
Note: The tour is usually the only way to see the inside chapel unless you’re invited to a wedding.
9. Miller was a teetotaler and no alcohol was sold in the hotel until after his death in 1935. Riverside was founded by a group of temperance advocates, many former abolitionists, who believed in education the free exchange of ideas.
10. After Miller’s death, his daughter and son-in-law ran the hotel until the 1950s. It changed hands several times until 1985 when purchased by the Carley Capital Group who closed the property for renovations and earthquake safety. They could not make payments on the $55 million borrowed although the work was virtually complete. After a lengthy period of closure, the city of Riverside approached Duane Roberts, known to be a fan of the hotel. He agreed to purchase the hotel for $13 million and re-opened the Mission Inn in 1992.
The Festival of Lights is free and open to the public until January 8, 2012.
EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY:One night, plus $25 restaurant/spa gift card $199.
DECK THE HOUSE: Sun-Thurs one night, valet parking and light kit with 500 lights to decorate your own home$199
HOLIDAY LIGHTS AND DELIGHTS: Sun-Thurs one night, valet parking, hot toddies or hot chocolate, docent tour of the Inn, plus $50 gift card $239.
COMFORT AND JOY : Fri-Sat, holiday dinner for two the Mission Inn Restaurant, valet parking, $50 gift card $429.
Rooms are spacious with individual character and amenities.
Dining options: Duane’s Prime Steaks & Seafood, Mission Inn Restaurant, Las Campanas, Bella Trattoria and Casey’s Cupcakes.
Kelly’s Spa offers an assortment of massages, facials and other wellness treatments. The heated pool can be enjoyed all year.
3649 Mission Inn Ave
Riverside, CA 92501
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