Sunday, July 5, 2015

Photo Essay: An Inn for Presidents, Padres, and Patron Saints

The Mission Inn in Riverside, California was never actually a mission, but it kind of looks like one – right down to the bell tower.

It started, though, as a tiny boarding house founded by the Miller family, who'd moved to the Inland Empire from Wisconsin in the late 1800s to build a water system in Riverside.

Frank Miller took over the property and by 1903 had turned it into a full-fledged hotel, then known as the Glenwood...

...building wing by wing...

...until eventually taking over an entire city block... a variety of architectural styles, inspired by Frank's travels to Europe and Asia.

But at its core was always the idea of the California mission... a time when mission tourism was becoming more popular...

...and Mission-style architecture was reviving.

And then there are, of course, the birds.

A pair of macaws – Napoleon (the blue one) and Joseph (the rainbow one) – used to fly around the hotel, charming its guests. The creatures were Frank's beloved pets, and there are sculptures, murals, and mosaics in honor of them throughout the property.

The resident birds today are a relatively recent addition, in tribute to the landmark's history – but also to sweet-talk passers-by. They'll whistle and say things like "See you soon" and "Good girl."

Inside the hotel, every room tells a different story. The Music Room was built for Frank's wife, who unfortunately passed away before it was completed.

Her face now graces the body of St. Cecelia (the patron saint of music) on one of the stained glass windows, forever accompanied by her treasured macaw.

The Music Room also houses a vintage Kimball organ in a custom-made oak case, now over 100 years old.

At one end of the lobby, the former presidential suite – once occupied by Taft, Roosevelt, Ford, Bush, JFK – has been converted into the Presidential Lounge. Nixon got married by the fireplace here.

Once you walk out onto the Spanish patio, surrounded by the various wings of the inn...

... it is clear that this is far more lavish and grandiose than any Spanish mission in California.

In many ways, it's more like a museum, with a collection of art, antiquities – like 13th century bells – and antique oddities and salvaged materials collected by Frank Miller from all around the world.

Although the inn itself is not a church... does have two (never consecrated) chapels for weddings, including the St. Francis Chapel, which Frank built to house the Tiffany stained glass windows and mosaic panels that he had salvaged. Bette Davis got married here.

In fact, there is stained glass all over the Mission Inn... it a feeling of reverence and gravitas.

The Mission Inn is the kind of place you want to get lost in, just to see where you'll end up.

When guests check in, the first thing they do is say to each other, "Let's go look around."

You might stumble across a teahouse or a Buddha in the Court of the Orient...

...or an orange dome at the end of a section called "Author's Row."

And then there's the whimsey of the clock tower, whose animated figures spin around at the hour strike.

There are towers, arches, minarets...

...and spiral staircases...

...which have you literally walking in circles...

...through the International Rotunda, the final wing to be added to the architectural assemblage, in 1931. The rotunda pays tribute to the founding padres of the California missions, but it was also meant to be a gathering place for the various nations around the world – all in the dream of creating world peace. The hotel leases out office space to various local businesses here, and also hosts a number of weddings in this open-air wing.

Frank Miller in front of the St. Francis Chapel (Photo by Avery E. Field, UC Riverside Special Collections and Archives)

All in all, three different architects (under Frank's direction) contributed to the incremental growth of the Mission Inn over the course of 60 years, from a small adobe house to a great sprawling mystery house. Although threatened with demolition for decades following Frank Miller's death and changes in ownership, local preservationists and civic groups took up the cause of landmarking the Mission Inn and bringing it up to code with an estimated $50 million restoration, when it was purchased by a local businessman who has kept the place going with his wife and children for 20 years.

There's so much to see at the Mission Inn, it's impossible to get it all in one visit. I took three good walks around the property and still feel like I only caught a glimpse of it. Some places require only a cursory visit, while others whisper "come hither" as you try to leave. After touring the Mission Inn, I now fantasize about going back – to swim in its pool and sleep in its beds and play with its birds and listen to those bells ring one more time.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Riverside's Festival of Lights at Mission Inn
Photo Essay: Mission of the Lost Bells
Photo Essay: Making a Mountain Out of a Hill

Friday, July 3, 2015

Photo Essay: Backstage at Pasadena Playhouse

I've had the magical opportunity to tour a few historic movie theaters since I moved to LA, but my heart truly lies with what was once called "legit" theaters – that is, playhouses.

People – even Angelenos – think that LA doesn't have a theater scene, but it most certainly does. You can see some theatrical production pretty much any night of the week, be it at the Geffen, somewhere along Theatre Row, or in the basement or back room of a bar.

Sometimes plays even come here before they get to the Great White Way.

And theater – specifically, the play – is woven into the historic fabric of LA, particularly in Pasadena.

The Pasadena Playhouse was founded in 1917, and still runs new productions in what is now known as the "Playhouse District" of Old Town Pasadena.

The current home for the Pasadena Playhouse was built in 1925 in Spanish Colonial Revival style...

....and by 1937, it had become such a star factory – training and churning out so much talent that would go onto greater stardom – that California proclaimed it to be its official State Theatre.

As it continues to mount popular and critically acclaimed productions, the Playhouse and its volunteers are increasingly aware of preserving its history. They've started commemorating each production with its own planter signed by each respective cast, creating a kind of "Garden of Fame" by the stage entrance.

I actually feel more comfortable backstage at a theater like this – or even on stage – than I do with the audience in the auditorium. I spent so much time in theaters in high school and college.

One of the reasons why Pasadena Playhouse has withstood the test of time – not only creatively, but architecturally – is because of its poured concrete structure. Down in the basement, it feels like you're in a bunker.

Down there, amidst the dressing rooms and the crews taking a lunch break... can peek into the orchestra pit...

...and visit the wardrobe department...

...where spools of multi-colored thread are hand-sewn into costumes...

...strong enough to last the run...

...but weak enough to be removed, if it's a rental.

There's such a wide range of productions at the Playhouse – from musical comedies to traditional dramas – that the wardrobe department has accrued about every accessory you can imagine.

Just in case.

Like many theaters, the backstage of Pasadena Playhouse also serves as a set shop...

...where power tools, woods, and paints are employed to build the environments of the script...

...whether it's a courtroom, or a smoky rock and roll joint.

The smell of freshly-sawed wood brings back a flood of memories for any thespian or setbuilder, staring in awe at the doorways built tall enough for those set pieces to be walked through.

This theater has been state-of-the-art for a long time: the vintage lightboard has so many levers, its operator would have to switch them with both hands and a foot in order to hit all their cues.

Fortunately, they've upgraded since.

But despite modernization, they still keep some old friends around.

I visited while stagehands were setting up for the next production, an exciting time at any theater...

...and when you can really focus on the playhouse itself, rather than on the play.

For years, the Pasadena Playhouse was also a kind of actors' academy, and cranked out many Hollywood movie stars such as Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman.

Shockingly on the forefront of technology for a legit playhouse, it was responsible for launching and operating one of the first TV stations in Southern California, KTTV. Playhouse staff also trained technicians that went on to work at other TV stations and the Air Force.

There's also a secret passageway that leads from a hidden library to the stage.

Related Posts:
Behind the Mask
Photo Essay: Behind the Scenes at Bob Baker Marionette Theater