Sunday, November 28, 2010

No, it's not a gingerbread house

This is not a gingerbread house, although it sure looks like one on this magical night.

Once upon a time a man built an adobe house in the arid inland region of Southern California. He turned it into an inn for coach and rail travelers, for people coming from the East and Midwest seeking dry air and a venture in citrus farming.

The man's son, Frank Miller, turned the modest hotel into an architectural marvel of Spanish and Moorish influences that covers a city block. Visitors walk under arched arcades similar to the California Missions, but, the Mission Inn was never one of Father Serra's missions.

I've had the luck to spend time in the spooky, mysterious, off-limits catacombs under the hotel when I was a reporter covering the making of an independent film.

A few times I've been able to roam throughout the hotel and followed hidden circular staircases and discover other wonders. There are stunning domed towers, a fountain from Seville, flying buttresses, Tiffany art glass windows and a chapel with an 18th-century gilded altar. If you're ever in Riverside, take the docent-led tour and visit the museum operated by the non-profit Mission Inn Foundation.

So magnificent is this structure , it drew U.S. Presidents and other famous folk--William McKinley, John D. Rockefeller, Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, William Howard Taft, Andrew Carnegie, Sarah Bernhardt, Henry Ford, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan.


But the hotel fell on hard times, turning into low-rent apartments and going into foreclosure. Redevelopment took over, and the inn became a National Historical Landmark in 1977. A two-year restoration by investors ended in another foreclosure, leaving the once-grand building empty, derelict, fenced off. Up for sale again in 1990, businessman Duane Roberts acquired it.

The hotel is a wonder to behold again, and since Mr. Roberts loves Christmas, he initiated a Festival of Lights that features millions of lights on the structure and draws tens of thousands of people for an after Thanksgiving fireworks show.

Even though I'm not much for crowds, I joined the throngs this year and was bedazzled. What a kickoff for the holiday season.

Because of gridlock, I could only photograph the show from one vantage point, so it's not a complete view of the hotel. Click this link to learn more about the history and architecture.
Hope you find a spark of wonder somewhere, too.
Addendum: Since Sarah brought up in the comment section that this sounds like a great site to set a novel, I'll mention that it's been done. The latest was Anne Rice's ANGEL TIME, released last year as part of her Songs of the Seraphim series. The novel features an assassin who stays at the inn. Fans of Rice's vampire books will recall her detailed settings rich in art. The Mission Inn is a perfect choice for her. The inn's owners put up a dedication on the suite she stayed in. This place has inspired many artists, as well. It is a stunner.


Jemi Fraser said...

What a cool building with a really interesting history! I'm glad it wasn't left to fall into complete disrepair. It's beautiful.

I'm lucky - I work with kids and get to see that spark of wonder on pretty much a daily basis! :)

Paul C said...

You capture the excitement of the evening well. Too bad this majestic building has confronted a few challenges.

Sarah Laurence said...

What an amazing place! You could set a novel there.

The Words Crafter said...

I love the history of old buildings and you make this one come alive!

Donna said...

Well, Sarah, there is "artists' row," I think it's called.

Thanks for braving the crowds and the cold to bring us fireworks, Tricia.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Jemi: It would have been a tragedy to let it crumble--such an extraordinary building.

@PaulC: Thank you. What's great is that people helped save it--a lot of people worked for years.

@Sarah: Yes, you could, and it's been done. I added an addendum to the original post that Anne Rice set her Angel Time at the Inn. The novel was released last year.

@WordsCrafter: Thanks! I swear that building IS alive.

@Donna: I think it's Author's Row on the top floor, with incredible views. But maybe there's an Artists Row, as well. There has certainly been a ton of art tied to the hotel. (you're quite welcome!)

VR Barkowski said...

It does my heart good to see this beautiful building thrive. I was only in Riverside once (I won't tell you how many years ago), and I still remember being stunned by the Inn's beauty. Thank you so much for sharing these inspiring photos. And how awesome it must have been to visit the catacombs. I'm very jealous!

Michelle Gregory said...

i always love this kind of architecture. thanks for sharing.

Paul Greci said...

I would've loved to have been on the behind the scenes tour discovering secret stairways. That sounds amazing!!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Viva: I'm jealous of my earlier self for getting into the catacombs for an extended time, watching the filming.

@Michelle: Glad that I could. :)

@PaulG: Oh, it was soooooo fun. I wish I could wander that hotel freely. It is filled with wonders.

Anonymous said...

I hope to see it some day. Thanks for sharing. :)

Sherrie Petersen said...

I had no idea that hotel had been restored. I remember driving by it when I was in school (I graduated in '90) and thinking it was such a shame that nobody could preserve it. How wonderful that it's now a focal point. I love hearing about things like this!!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Medeia: It's amazing, truly.

@Sherrie: It would have been terrible if it had been lost. If you're ever in Riverside, check it out!