The Legendary Hotel: Mission Inn

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“I am made Independent in disposition and am willing to fight my own battles . . . Life is a battle in which I am going to win or die.” (F. A. Miller)

He was the owner and chief developer of the Mission Inn in Riverside, California. His energetic lobbying efforts resulted in bringing the Citrus Experiment Station, the interurban street car system and the Opera House to Riverside. This man, who had little formal education and never held an elected office or learned to drive a car, succeeded where many others had failed. His name was Frank Augustus Miller.

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The story begins with a small house called the Glenwood Cottage, built by civil engineer Christopher Columbus Miller in 1876. In 1880, Frank acquired the block of land with the family home from his father for $5,000. In 1902, he changed the name to the Mission Inn and continued developing his business, until he died in 1935. 

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The hotel also needed a distinctive logo or symbol. Miller wanted something suggesting California’s religious roots. His design had the double barred cross with a trapezoidal frame and a plain church bell. This design is still the hotel logo, but also used by the city of Riverside.

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In 1889, Miller proposed a city ordinance that in hotels with 40 or more rooms, the sale of wine and beer was permitted with meals costing at least 25 cents. When the ordinance went into effect, the Mission Inn qualified for a liquor license (no saloons were permitted). It helped to bring new clients and increase the revenue.

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Miller always wanted a resort clientele. He contacted Raymond & Whitcomb tour company, asking them to bring tour groups in large numbers (their arrival became even easier when Riverside’s railroad connections doubled). Riverside offered beauty, sobriety, quiet and peaceful streets where “police are hardly needed.” The arrangement paid off all round: the railroads had more passengers, tour company’s profits increased, and Miller got a new seasonal clientele.

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Guests entered into the cool, dark lobby with its hefty square pillars, large open fireplace and reception desk. Comfortable Mission furniture and carpeted floors invoked immediate quiet and invited relaxation, so different from the bustle and clatter of many hotel lobbies.

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Presidents as well as the barons of business enjoyed the Inn. In the early days these included Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover. In later years, the famous visitors were Richard Nixon and John Kennedy as well as Ronald Reagan, who honeymooned there with Nancy.

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The Mission Inn in Riverside has so much that is unexpected. There is a unique mixture of Spanish Baroque, Renaissance and Oriental styles. During the 30-year construction period Miller traveled the world, collecting treasures to bring back to the hotel for display. The various museum-quality artifacts on the property has an estimated value of over $5 million.

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Increasingly famous as a hotel man, Frank Miller had a true passion for arts and culture, and displayed his own growing collection of paintings. His Spanish Art Gallery became the first art museum in Riverside.

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The Mission Inn is one of my favorite places in California.

Images: photos by Dasha Wagner, the Mission Inn promotional postcards (1930’s).

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