Riverside is the most populated city in the Inland Empire. This term once referred to the part of Southern California that included Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. Residents still call it the Inland Empire, but its fortunes have somewhat changed. San Bernardino, where the McDonald brothers sold their first hamburgers, will not be confused with Silicone Valley. The city of Riverside once sat amid navel orange groves that produced genuine economic prosperity. Today it still contains one of the hotels, like the del Coronado in San Diego, that is deservedly on the National Register of Historic Places, the Mission Inn. As a result of its Landmark status, The Mission Inn can’t be torn down. Ruth & I learned this hotel’s interesting history on a guided tour.
Our well-informed host David made sure that we knew right away that the Mission Inn is not connected in any way to the California mission system. It’s just a name. This hotel does have, however, a spectacular 100 seat chapel named for St. Francis with a gold altar and mosaic Tiffany windows. Despite its religious appearance, it has never been a church, but it has been used for thousands of weddings. Seeing it is part of the tour.
This hotel got its start as a 19th century hotel/boarding house run by a man from Wisconsin. It entered its luxurious, heritage years when Frank Miller took over. He ran it from 1884 until his death in the 1930s. Miller added wing after wing, so many bells that a Garden of the Bells was established, Alhambra balconies, a pipe organ in the music room that will remind you of The Phantom, cannons, a gargantuan Buddha, etc. Frank bought indiscriminately and would sell almost anything he owned for the right price except for his 1½ ton Nanking Bell. An outstanding promoter, he attracted such historic luminaries as Amelia Earhart, Booker T. Washington, and John Muir to his hotel. He hosted a succession of U.S. Presidents beginning with Teddy Roosevelt who planted a navel orange tree that still thrives. Pat and Richard Nixon were married at the Mission Inn. Nancy and Ronald Reagan spent the first night of their honeymoon here.
This hotel has faced bankruptcy and underwent a $55 million restoration in the 1980s. A stroll through its lobby, which contains portraits of all the Presidents who have stayed here, is a vivid experience. It’s a luxury hotel that’s uniquely Californian and the greatest remaining example of the wealth generated in the Inland Empire.
ps. That’s Frank holding a macaw above.