The Mission Inn Hotel and Spa is a fabled resort and California’s booming orange crops had much to do with bringing the people and bells to this location. I had heard about The Mission Inn and all its grandeur, but to really understand it, a look to the past is imperative. Growing up in Southern California, I was surprised it was not part of the Junipero Serra Spanish missions located throughout California. Then again, Navel oranges, I know well.
In the later part of the 1800’s, a group of people started their own colony in Riverside and found success growing Brazilian Navel orange trees from two grafts provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The area grew like gangbusters because of the blooming citrus industry and welcoming climate. Tourists from the east coast and Europe found sunshine and orange blossom aroma a reason to visit Riverside which sits in a basin 60 miles east of Los Angeles. An adobe boarding house named the Glenwood Inn was owned by Christopher Columbus Miller and the small building was located on a piece of property the size of a city block.
Mr. Miller’s son, Frank, bought the property from his dad in 1880. Frank, at age 22, with his impending marriage, devised a plan to capitalize on Southern California’s booming times. Glenwood Inn was changed to The Mission Inn to take advantage of people’s interest in missions and the growing mission revival architectural style. Mr. Miller had keen marketing skills and influential friends, which he used to build up the property. He acquired art and numerous keepsakes from Europe and Asia that are as profound to the property as the unusual buildings. His wife Isabella loved bells and in the front of the property is a 3500-pound bell named the Nanjing Bell. Eight hundred bells are in the collection and displayed at various locations, which is fun for adults and kids to discover.
Guests enter through an arched abode entrance with hanging bells in the tall wall known as a campanario or bell wall, resembling a mission. Beyond that, the Inn takes twists and turns in an eclectic manner with buildings and wings added one at a time and not in a flowing way.
Among the many add-ons is the International Rotunda Wing completed in 1931. This multi-level storied spiral staircase is impressive with wrought iron hand rails and insets of other country’s insignias. Truly intriguing is how the rotunda brings nationalities together step by step. Booker T. Washington was invited to visit and dine with Mr. Miller during his social reform speeches and President John F. Kennedy attended the Institute of world affairs conference before his presidency.
One level leads to the St. Francis of Assisi Chapel and another level into the Courtyard of the Orient. The St. Francis Chapel is inviting with Tiffany stained glass windows, Belgian wooden benches, a massive gold-leafed alter and near the prayer candles a menorah. Many old time movie stars have been married in the chapel, including Bette Davis, and over 300 weddings are held each year. I noticed a woman behind me continued to glance to the back of the chapel while most were in awe of the forward altar. Quietly, she asked the docent leader if she could play the pipe organ because she was a professional organist and it would be such a thrill. Politely she was told no.
Wings to the hotel were added including a Cloister wing with catacombs, Spanish wing with outdoor courtyard and Author’s Row. Each level has ornate accommodations for overnight guests. I was trying to take it all in, Moorish style roof on one wing, turrets, gargoyles and a glockenspiel. When the glockenspiel or clock tower chimes, rotating full size figurines appear every 15 minutes.
Walking on a docent’s tour is the best way to view the property and volunteers in the museum arrange the tours. The museum and store are staffed by very knowledgeable people who love the Mission Inn and are able to answer questions. Trust me, after a tour, there will be many questions.
Then it will be time to relax in the hotel’s Kelly’s spa. I walked past the spa and eucalyptus aroma drifted through the air. It made me wish I had scheduled a massage, facial or private yoga session in the luxurious spa but I had dinner on my mind. Before my tour, I had sipped fresh iced tea in the Presidential Lounge, which is easy to find off the lobby because portraits of the 10 presidents who visited the Inn line the wall. Now, I was hungry and of restaurant choices that included Duane’s Steakhouse and Seafood, Las Campanas Mexican Restaurant, Bella Trattoria Italian Restaurant or The Mission Inn, I found myself in the Mission Inn Restaurant. My order of battered squash blossoms stuffed with chicken salad was picturesque. Arranged as if on the vine, an orchid gently laid on top and glistened with drizzled citrus oil.
Many visit the Inn during the holiday Festival of Lights with over 4 million lights and 400 animated figures that is spectacular to see. Other events are Valentine’s Day Specials, Sunday’s High Tea and collaborative arts programs. My friend, nearly 100 years old, told me she celebrated her 95th birthday at the Sunday brunch and had a lovely time.
Standing outside, I looked at the early 1900’s Spanish Renaissance and Mission Revival buildings lining the downtown streets. Palm trees swayed and I remembered my family driving past endless rows of orange groves and the sweet taste of navel oranges.
IF YOU GO
The Mission Inn
3649 Mission Inn Ave
Riverside, Ca 92501
Mission Inn Foundation and Museum