California Castle

Riverside’s historic Mission Inn

By: Lisa Jennings

We sat with cocktails on an expansive private terrace overlooking the cloisters and archways of the historic Mission Inn. A fire glowed in the outdoor fireplace, chasing away the evening chill and illuminating a fresco of a Franciscan monk looking, well, peaceful.

Guests often have the same look while staying at this lovely, eclectic 239-room property one of Southern California’s oldest and most romantic spots. From the setting, we could have been in Spain, colonial Mexico or even one of the historic Spanish missions that dot California. But, in fact, we were in Riverside a small town about an hour east of Los Angeles.

The Mission Inn was never actually a mission but an adobe boarding house. The building and surrounding land were purchased in 1880 by Frank Miller, who wanted to design a hotel to attract wealthy Easterners and Europeans looking for sunshine in the middle of a beautiful nowhere. Though a bit eccentric Miller wandered the hotel wearing monks’ robes to set the stage over the next 30 years, he designed his hotel around the notions of “truth, liberty and tolerance.”

The Inn’s overall design is mission revival, but as Miller added new wings, he introduced new styles. The Spanish wing, for example, evokes a Moorish castle, while the Court of the Orient has a Japanese influence. Critics have described the Inn as adorably cockeyed, but the architectural patchwork makes for a beautiful quilt.

While Miller was an active pacifist, he was also a republican with a particular fondness for Abraham Lincoln. GOP fingerprints are all over the place: Richard and Pat Nixon married at the Inn in 1940, and Ronald and Nancy Reagan honeymooned here.

Politics aside, weddings at the Inn continue to be big business. Several large presidential suites are perfect for couples. Ours favored by singer Barbara Streisand included working gas fireplaces in the sitting room, bedroom and patio.

The property also features two chapels: The Francis of Assisi, which accommodates about 150, is known for its 18th-century, 18-karat gold-leaf Rayas Altar, carved-wood ceiling and stained-glass windows. The ornate St. Cecilia Chapel is more intimate, designed to hold about 15 people standing.

With ample indoor meeting space and outdoor courtyards, wedding photographers love the many possibilities for dramatic backdrops and so does Hollywood. “The Wild Party,” “Buddy, Buddy,” “Nixon” and the remake of “Man in the Iron Mask” were all filmed here.

After Miller’s death in 1936, hotel patronage slowly declined, but the Inn has since bounced back after it was purchased and renovated by a city agency in the ’70s. Since then, locals have embraced the hotel, from the docents who offer daily 75-minute anecdote-packed tours, to the regulars who pack the lobby for Sunday brunch.

Riverside may not be one of Southern California’s bigger tourist spots, but the hotel makes it worth a visit. The Mission Inn will even make a monk smile.