RIVERSIDE, Calif. —The Mission Inn is the Winter Palace of Southern California. The 107-year-old hotel in Riverside is decked out in 3.5 million holiday lights, with fireworks set off over its cupolas built to resemble the Spanish missions'.
Crowds throng the halls, passing the suite-turned-bar where Teddy Roosevelt slept and Richard Nixon was married. They tour the chapel where Bette Davis was married, the arches under which Albert Einstein strolled and the hallways where Ronald Reagan spent the first honeymoon night of his second marriage.
It's a sprawling, rambling, eccentric old place that by all rights should have passed away along with the lifestyle it was built to celebrate. But the Mission Inn lives on through the graces of a local boy made very good who has a deep well of nostalgia for the old place, and an even deeper wallet to indulge it. Time can't stand still, but on one block in downtown Riverside, it can be frozen.
"The Inland Empire" is mostly a marketing slogan these days, but there was a time not long ago when it was true. From the deserts to the mountains and almost to the sea was a vast kingdom of tidy groves of oranges, limes and avocados that flourished under the steady sun of Southern California.
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At the heart of the empire, a castle was built by a brilliant eccentric named Frank Miller. His Mission Inn in Riverside opened in 1903 and towered above the homes and orchards. The hotel was a citadel of luxury where the shivering rich from the East could take the train to escape to California for the winter. Miller, equal parts salesman and showman, would sometimes meet the train dressed as a Franciscan friar, handing out oranges to arriving guests before leading them from the station. The grand hotel became a favored playground for the Hollywood set, along with Riverside locals, who in the inn's early days lived in the city with the richest per capita population in the United States.
Miller added onto the hotel in eclectic styles drawn from his travels — Spanish, Chinese, Italian and Japanese, with a bit of Arts & Crafts thrown in. There were flying buttresses holding up nothing, extra patios and hidden music rooms. Enamored of Asia, he put a pagoda-shaped cowling on the kitchen's chimney. The additions created a zig-zagging layout that confused adults and enthralled children playing hide-and-go-seek. Viewed from the fourth-floor rooftop walkway, the collection of domes and staircases looks like one of those vertigo-inducing drawings by M.C. Escher.
To fill up these vast spaces, Miller became a high-class hoarder, bringing in cannons from the Philippines, a soaring carved wood and golf leaf altar piece from Mexico, Tiffany windows from a demolished church in New York and a massive temple bell from China. He put a large sitting Buddha into a room, which was later used in a movie in which 1960s bombshell Raquel Welch ended a sexy dance by plopping into the ancient wise man's lap.
Miller was an ardent Republican, and the Mission Inn became a place of political pilgrimage for those hoping to succeed in Southern California.
The Depression hit the hotel hard, and the driving force of the Mission Inn withered when Miller died in 1935. His family kept it going into the early 1950s, after which it went through a series of owners.
The empire that the Mission Inn had celebrated receded, then disappeared. The citrus orchards gave way to the tract homes, shopping centers and businesses that spilled out from the burgeoning Los Angeles area. Hollywood and the East Coast snowbirds preferred the resorts along the Pacific Coast. Doctors who once sent patients with lung diseases to Riverside for the clean, dry air now warned it was in the smog belt that turned the blue skies gray much of the year.
The inn closed in 1985. The dark shell was visible from the Riverside Freeway, which sped travelers between Los Angeles and the popular resorts in Palm Springs that took the Mission Inn's place as a "clear and dry" winter getaway.
But the Winter Palace had a white knight. Duane Roberts lived a millionaire's life in Laguna Beach with his wife, Kelly. Duane's roots were in Riverside, where he and his father built a food business. Like Frank Miller, Roberts is a Republican stalwart.
Duane Roberts remembered visiting the Mission Inn for special occasions with his family. When plans to redevelop the property collapsed, he stepped in, buying it in 1992. He finished the work, reopened the hotel and has added restaurants, a wine bar, a spa created by his wife and a high-end cupcake shop overseen by his daughter, Casey. The surrounding downtown neighborhood has seen its fortunes revive along with the hotel, with shops and cafes opening in the streets alongside the inn. A few blocks away, there's an ongoing refurbishment of the landmark Fox Riverside Theater, where "Gone With the Wind" had its first public showing in 1939.
It has been a struggle at times — especially during the recent economic downturn. The Mission Inn isn't a charity, but its owners don't expect it to throw off a lot of cash either.
"If this were a normal bottom-line driven proposition, we wouldn't operate like we are," Duane Roberts said.
"The hotel is part of the family," Kelly Roberts said.
The couple came to Riverside the Friday after Thanksgiving for what has become the most anticipated night in the region. With several thousand people counting down on Mission Inn Avenue, the millions of lights came on and the animated figures on the balconies and roofs of the hotel came to life. Fireworks shot into the night sky, bathing the Spanish tile roof in reds, greens and golds.
The Winter Palace was the center of life in the Inland Empire yet again.
IF YOU GO:
The Mission Inn, 3649 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside. 951-784-0300 or www.missioninn.com. Rooms from $190 per night.
The Festival of Lights runs through Jan. 2. www.festivaloflightsca.com or www.riversidefestivaloflights.com.
Tips: My favorite rooms are the large Mission Rooms on the fourth floor, which open onto a central courtyard and cost about $240 per night. The north end of the property is near an entertainment district that can be noisy on weekend nights. Ask for rooms on the other side of the hotel for a quieter stay.
Though the hotel features the excellent, four-diamond AAA-rated Duane's steakhouse and 54 Degrees, an oenophile's wine bar, my favorite treats are the USDA choice ground hamburger (about $14) and the "Creamy Carrot" cupcake from Casey's Cupcakes (about $3.75).
Tours: Whether staying at the inn or just passing by, take advantage of the great docent-led tours of the property through the adjacent Mission Inn Museum. The tour gets you inside areas often closed to the public — like the interior of the St. Francis of Assisi Chapel and the room with the big Buddha statue. The price is $15 during the Festival of Lights and $12 the rest of the year. If you just want to visit the museum, a $2 donation is requested. Call 951-788-9556 or go to www.missioninnmuseum.com.