Homes Fit For Heroes — Visiting Riverside’s Mission Inn

In April, when many transit agencies were free in recognition of Earth Day, I rode Metrolink to and from four of Southern California‘s county seats. I called it The Great Metrolink Four Counties Ride. It was my first time really exploring San Bernardino and Riverside. Downtown San Bernardino was concerning — although I would love to go back. Downtown Riverside, on the other hand, really charmed me and I wanted to return as soon as an occasion presented itself. That occasion did, indeed, present itself when a friend’s band came to Pioneertown in June and a group of friends and I went to see them perform and hang out in that town that began as a Western set. Afterward, he headed our separate ways. The band headed on toward Phoneix. Most of the rest of us headed to our homes in Los Angeles County. Mike, Una, and I headed to Riverside.

Mike was only in Riverside for a few minutes. He had to get back to South Pasadena in time for a meeting and had to get some work down before then. Driving our rented car, we pulled into Riverside Station with moments to spare. Mike hopped on the train and it took off almost immediately. He later told me that he’d indeed gotten his work done on the train as it headed back toward Union Station, and from there took Metro‘s L Line back home. Easy peasy and a heck of a lot better than trying to get work done whilst driving.

Una and I then headed to Downtown Riverside. Between the station and our destination (the Mission Inn — or Mission Inn Hotel & Spa as it’s officially & redundantly known currently). In just a few blocks, we passed and I pointed out Avila’s Historic 1929, Heroes Brewery, the Riverside Art Museum, the Riverside Municipal Auditorium, the Universalist Unitarian Church of Riverside, the Divine Truth Unity Fellowship Church, the Riverside Metropolitan Museum, and the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum. Walkability, transit, art, architecture, and beer. I later looked at a map. There’s also a park, performing arts venue, markets, and library, in the immediate vicinity. Not too far away are the campus of a university (University of California, Riverside) and the Santa Ana River. I didn’t get much sense of the restaurant scene nor did I see any evidence of an art house cinema but otherwise, it met pretty much all of the (non-weather) criteria that make a place livable for me.

Una and I checked into the inn. If you’ve never had the pleasure, it’s beautiful, bewildering, and bizarre — equal parts charming and disconcerting. It’s precisely the sort of place I like. It’s really hard for me to describe without resorting to a bunch of references — so bear with me. I’m tall but not that tall (187 centimeters) but I had to hunch underneath the low ceilings like Gandalf in Bag End… if the Shire were in Nuevo España. Any hotel, pretty much, has a bit of Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining in it, and the Mission Inn more than most. There’s a lot of creepy Christian iconography that makes it feel like something out of a Rolf Forsberg film — but the architecture and maze-like layout reminded me of the Village from the Prisoner.

The layout, in other words, is sprawling, confusing, and disorienting… almost as if its buildings are the fruiting bodies that poked up from a complicated network of mycelium. It all started with a simple adobe, the Glenwood Cottage, built by engineer and surveyor Christopher Columbus Miller in 1875. It admitted its first paying guest on 22 November 1876. In February 1880, Frank Augustus Miller purchased the property from his father. under his stewardship, it became a property, full-service hotel. Many of the guests were health-conscious travelers from the Eastern US and Western Europe who arrived in the Cold Rush, hoping to pick oranges and breathe in dry air. Miller attached several names including the Glenwood Tavern, the Glenwood Hotel, and New Glenwood, before settling on the Glenwood Mission Inn in 1902.

As much difficulty as Miller apparently had settling on a name for the inn, he seems to have been even more challenged by the idea of settling on a single architectural style. On the other hand, like so many other Southern Californians, perhaps Miller just wasn’t concerned much with authenticity or good taste. Whatever the reason, as the property grew, so did the number of revival styles which include Mediterranean, Mission, Moorish, New Spanish Baroque, Renaissance, Spanish Colonial, and Spanish Gothic. As it was built, Miller traveled the world collecting objects that he incorporated into and displayed throughout the inn, more often than not, without much apparent explanation, rhyme, or reason.

The first building was designed by Peoria-born architect Arthur Burnett Benton. California native Myron Hunt designed the Spanish Wing and patio. Benton added the third story in 1921. British-born Riverside architect George Stanley Wilson designed the St. Francis Chapel, built around Louis Comfort Tiffany-designed mosaics salvaged from the Madison Square Presbyterian Church. Wilson also designed the fourth-floor Authors’ Row in 1929 and the stunning Rotunda in 1930. In 1932, Miller designed the St. Francis Atrio.

Frank Miller died in 1935. His daughter, Allis, and her husband, DeWitt Hutchings, took over operations. Hutchings embraced his late father-in-law’s spirit and continued adding to the massive, maximalist menagerie. The Famous Flier’s Wall was added to honor 151 notable aviators whose signatures adorn a pair of large copper wings. Long before he was elected president, Richard Nixon married Thelma “Pat” Ryan there in 1940, in what later became the Presidential Lounge. Presidents Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover had all stayed there. John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, and George W. Bush all followed. William Howard Taft stayed there, too, and I think more than twenty years ago, some friends and I actually stopped by briefly to sit in his chair on his way to or from Joshua Tree.

Long-time readers hopefully know that I don’t especially care about slebs, but the roster of “notable” hotel guests at the inn is as colorful and eclectic as the inn itself and includes Albert Einstein, Andrew Carnegie, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Barbra Streisand, Bette Davis, Booker T. Washington, Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, Charles Lindberg, Clark Gable, Constance Bennett, Drew Barrymore, Eddie Cantor, Ethel Barrymore, Fess Parker, Ginger Rogers, Gustav VI of Sweden, Harry Chandler, Harry Houdini, Helen Kelle, Henry Ford, Henry Huntington, Hubert H. Bancroft, Humphrey Bogart, James Brolin, John D. Rockefeller, John Muir, Jonas Salk, Joseph Pulitzer, Lillian Russell, Linda Darnell, Mary Pickford, Raquel Welch, Sarah Bernhardt, Spencer Tracy, Susan B. Anthony, Van Cliburn, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, and William Randolph Hearst. Anne Rice stayed there and was so smitten that she included it as a setting in her 2009 work, Songs of the Seraphim.

Singer-songwriter Carrie Jacobs-Bond stayed at the inn in 1909 and wrote the lyrics to the parlor song, “A Perfect Day,” there (she came up with the melody a few months later, whilst in the Mojave). The sheet music, published in 1910, went on to sell 25 million copies. That’s almost a copy for one-in-four Americans at that time — or roughly the equivalent of selling 90 million copies of a tune today. It was recorded by dozens of artists. In her memoir, Jacobs-Bond, perhaps not surprisingly, confessed that she was tired of hearing it. Fame is fleeting and tastes change, however, and I wonder how many of the hotel’s guests even recognize the title or tune which is performed on the inn’s carillon at the end of each day. Carrie Jacobs-Bond died in 1946.

DeWitt Hutchings died in 1956. Hotelier Benjamin Harrison Swig, owner of the Fairmount Hotel chain, took over and operated it in receivership until 1968. Some of the rooms were converted into apartments and lodging for students at UC Riverside. The Mission Inn had been designated a California Historical Landmark in 1961 but it and its surroundings were both showing their age. By the 1970s, Downtown Riverside — like so many downtowns of the era — was not a happening place. All of the action had moved to indoor shopping malls. And lodgers didn’t want to stay in charming places, apparently preferring the familiarity and sterility of motel chains.

Manager George Parrish, a Londoner, added a British pub called Glenwood Tavern in 1970, and as unlikely as it seems, businesses reportedly improved 40% in a year. Nevertheless, he sold it for $2 million in 1971 to Urban Housing Inc., who turned the rooms on the second and third floor into 137 apartments. One of its tenants, then, was writer and “dean of the Oscarologists” Jack Matthews, who celebrated the inn with an essay, “He Lives in the Past.” Back then, rent ranged from $150 to $300 per month (roughly $1,000 to $2,000 adjusted for inflation). Hotel rates ranged from $10 per night to $50 for the suites. Urban Housing Inc. went bankrupt in 1975. Some nearby business owners in the depressed downtown proposed demolishing the inn and replacing it with a surface parking lot — surely the sort of thing that would lure shoppers back from suburban malls.

The Riverside Redevelopment Agency acquired the inn for $2 million in 1976. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977. Carley Capital Group bought it in 1985 and closed it for a planned three-year renovation. Instead of reopening it after three years, they went bankrupt. At that point, Chemical Bank assumed ownership. It sat abandoned, protected from would-be tenants or guests by fencing and “no trespassing” signs. Duane Roberts stepped in and bought it in 1992. Under the guidance of Roberts and his wife, Kelly, some of the amenities were updated without detracting too much from the inn’s charm. There are now shops, restaurants, a spa, and even a museum — none of which, I’m sorry to say, we patronized during our stay.

The inn participates in or hosts events including the Feste dell’Amore, the Festival of Lights, the Pumpkin Stroll, and guided tours of the inn — and as much fun as it might be to stay in the Mission Inn around Christmas or Halloween, much of the everyday fun is surely exploring the inn’s interior passageways, wandering across the arcades, descending the vertiginous rotunda staircase, opening random doors, wondering where tiny staircases go, and just generally getting lost. I knew from the vault lights that there was a subterranean level but didn’t learn until I’d left that there are mock catacombs.

Of course, part of the fun of staying in any hotel is relaxing in bed with a television remote in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. Part of any vacation should be devoted to being completely unproductive. I’m always amazed on these occasions, though, how many commercials there are and how truly abysmal most of the programming is. Not surprisingly, the Mission Inn has appeared in quite a few films and television series over the decades and I thought it would be cool if there was a station just showing a loop of films and television series in which it’s appeared. Those appearances include the films The Challenge of Chance (1919), The Idiot’s Delight (1938), Along the Cactus Trail (1944), The First Legion (1951), Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), The Wild Party (1975), Black Samurai (1976), Buddy Buddy (1981), The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), Vibes (1988), Puppet Master (1989), Nixon (1995), and The Man in the Iron Mask (1998); and the television series Route 66 (“The Quick and the Dead”), The Magician (“Man on Fire”), Quincy M.E. (“Go Fight City Hall… to the Death”), and Sliders (“The Exodus”). But such a station doesn’t exist and so I ended up watching back-to-back episodes of Forensic Files.

Suitably entertained and creeped out, I decided to head out into the night to explore more of Downtown Riverside and it seemed to me that some of Downtown’s charm had faded with the light. There were people out dining and drinking on the car-free section of Main Street, which is romantic in the way that car-free streets usually are… but I walked too far and in the wrong direction, apparently, and the romance turned darker.

In order to avoid a group of rowdy drunks rolling around at a bus stop, I crossed University Avenue. On the other side of the street, I encountered a man who dropped his methamphetamine pipe. The glass ball broke off and rolled around evasively as he scrambled to collect it. I turned up Market Street and a disheveled woman appeared near a motel and beckoned me into the darkness from which she’d only half emerged. Unfortunately, these sorts of scenes are seemingly more common now than they were a few years ago but I told myself that part of my being on edge was no doubt due to the unfamiliar and mostly empty streets — which is also part of the fun. Of course, watching true crime shows probably only added to my heightened state. It’s good to keep things in perspective in these situations. After all, I survived the 1980s and ’90s. As I calmed down, I realized that no one had so much as uttered a discouraging word in my direction. The figures I encountered outside of the hotel were not villains but victims just trying doing what they felt they had to do to get through the night.

I got back to the hotel and watched the video for Eddie Money‘s “Think I’m in Love,” which was filmed at the inn. Now that is sheer terror!

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery.
Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesVICEHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture.
Brightwell has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles.

You can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagram, Mastodon, Medium, Mubithe StoryGraphand Twitter.

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