July 05, 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

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