RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Whether you delight in its eccentricities or shake your head at its flea-market sense of incongruous juxtaposition, you can't look upon the Mission Inn without marveling at the vast expanse of one man's adorably cockeyed vision.
Frank Miller, the inn's legendary former owner, wasn't a Catholic and he didn't come from vast amounts of money. So what possessed this tee-totaling Congregationalist to pour all of his earnings and energies into a mission-fusion-style hotel of massive stucco arches, acres of red-roof tiles, enormous gilded altars and stained glass windows, ancient stone carvings, flying buttresses, and eclectic artifacts from every corner of the globe?
Foresight, it can be argued a hundred years later.
Today the Mission Inn stands as a glorious reminder of a time when big things were happening all over California's Inland Empire. A century ago Riverside was a sweet-smelling citrus capital that was among the wealthiest cities in the nation, and Miller's B&B was becoming the place where rich and famous folk came to stay and play.
In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt made an overnight campaign stop and transplanted one of California's parent citrus trees in the Mission Inn courtyard, a proud moment highlighted in tours of the hotel even now that the original tree is long gone. Later, everyone from Booker T. Washington to Henry Ford would visit; Richard and Patricia Nixon married here, as did Bette Davis and William Grant Sherry (husband No. 3). Ronald and Nancy Reagan spent their wedding night at the inn, and Hollywood stars regularly cavorted on its posh upper floors. They still do. Because even though Riverside has slipped from renowned tourist destination to sleepy no-man's land lounging between the coast and Palm Springs, the Mission Inn's intriguing accommodations, reasonable rates, solid dining options, and unique combination of art and architecture make it a draw all by itself.
The best way to begin your stay is with a 75-minute, docent-led tour of the hotel. With many of the most impressive and intriguing sights now behind locked doors, you'll miss a lot if you don't enlist the help of a guide. Besides, there's much colorful history to the place, and these people are well versed in all of it.
How else would we have known that Raquel Welch actually draped herself across the lap of the eight-foot Buddha in the Ho-O-Kan room while filming 1975's "The Wild Party," or learned that Hopalong Cassidy (actor William Boyd) once worked the inn as a chauffeur and local guide? With little prompting, the docents rattle off lists of former guests at the hotel, including the likes of Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, Harry Houdini, Cary Grant, and Judy Garland.
As you stroll through the impressive main entrance with its charming belfry and lush courtyard, your guide will probably correct the common misperception that the inn was ever a working mission. The present hotel sprang from a rustic 12-room lodge run by Frank Miller's father beginning in 1875, which became the Glenwood Mission Inn in 1903 via an ambitious blueprint laid down by Franciscan-revival architect Arthur Burnett Benton. Over the next three decades, Benton and other architects designed additional wings to complete Miller's grand dream, and the sum total of their efforts is this whimsical place where your eye is urged to make uniform sense of mismatched turrets, towers, arches, and domes.
A Garden of Bells looms high above the Spanish Patio to display some of the 800 bells (including the oldest known in Christendom) collected by the Miller family. St. Francis Chapel, where Davis took her vows, is only the most elaborate of nondenominational places where people get married here, and it was built to accommodate its ornate Mexican Baroque altar screen and seven cathedral-size Tiffany windows.
Favorite stops along any Mission Inn tour include the cavernous Cloister Music Room, the elegant Spanish Art Gallery, and the Famous Fliers' Wall, where small copper wings hang to honor aviators (among them Amelia Earhart and Chuck Yeager) who have visited the inn. Unfortunately, the fascinatingly bizarre catacombs where life-size wax figures of Pope Pius X and his 13 attendants once stood on display are now closed off due to safety regulations, but you can see survivors of the papal court in the Mission Inn Museum.
If you don't have many hundreds of dollars to bed down in one of the luxurious units on the hotel's highest story, you might luck out (as we did) and find a guest willing to let you glimpse the fabulous domed Bridal Suite still favored by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. The nearby Innkeeper's Suite is the newest and most expensive accommodation at $1,800 a night.
The hotel boasts 239 rooms in all, no two alike. Yours might have rope-motif ceilings and a view of the outdoor swimming pool, or it could be Mexican-tiled and tucked behind a medieval-looking wooden door. No matter where you wander in the inn, though, it's Miller's odd decorating approach that lends the place its most intimate and unique charms. In the enormous, dark-beamed lobby alone, there's a 94-foot handmade carpet runner depicting California's missions, a rare 1875 Steinway piano, and a giant chair made to accommodate President William Howard Taft's 335-pound frame during a 1909 banquet at the inn.
After Miller died in 1935, the place was run by his heirs until the 1950s, then had several unkind owners both private and public. Riverside entrepreneur (and unsung inventor of the frozen burrito) Duane Roberts took over in 1992, and has recently completed a $2 million renovation to mark the inn's centennial year.
Among the most popular things to do at the hotel these days, besides get married, is eat. The Sunday brunch buffet is legendary in Southern California and massive enough to warrant an overnight stay just to recover. The entire ground floor is awash in so many carved meats and gooey desserts that President Taft would have needed a bigger chair to spend time here today.
If you visit Riverside between Thanksgiving weekend and the second Sunday of January, the hotel and surrounding blocks will be decked out for the Festival of Lights. Go mid-April and the city's Orange Blossom Festival offers a "down-home" parade. Other events endeavor to stir up interest the rest of the year, but in general there are just a handful of reliable attractions outside the inn's stuccoed walls.
Foremost among these is the UCR/California Museum of Photography. This first-class museum features the West Coast's largest collection of cameras and a hands-on zoetrope.
Also within walking distance of the hotel is the Riverside Art Museum, offering revolving exhibits, and the Riverside Municipal Museum, a good place to view relics of the citrus industry.
If you want to stretch your legs some more, Mount Rubidoux presents an invigorating hike that pays off in a sweeping view of the city. Its base is about three-quarters of a mile from the Mission Inn, and it's worth the moderate effort to walk to the summit. From up there, Frank Miller's 100-year-old dream looks even more impressive.
Janice Page is a freelance writer who lives in Brookline.