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Historic Mission Inn Prepares to Open After $40-Million, 3 1/2-Year Renovation

Times Staff Writer

The magnificent jumble of architecture here known as the Mission Inn closed its doors in July, 1985, for a two-year, $28-million face lift that seemed at the time to be a fairly routine job.

But when work crews on the renovation project placed plumb lines and levels on the 80-year-old national landmark, “They found the whole thing was sinking into the sunset,” said Mission Inn historian Michael Rounds.

They also discovered wooden foundations savaged by termites, brick arches strung together with barbed wire, multistory wings undermined by tunneling, and walls held up by little more than aging window frames.

“It’s been said that the only thing holding that building up was the ghost of Frank Miller,” Rounds said, referring to the eccentric local citrus grower who built the Hispanic Revival-style building in stages between 1902 and 1932.

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Now, the vast project, which wound up costing $40 million, is nearly complete and managers of the new Omni Mission Inn hope to receive their first guests in December. Omni Hotels International manages and operates the place for the Carley Capital Group of Madison, Wis., which bought it from the Riverside Redevelopment Agency in 1985.

“This was by far the toughest and most complex rehabilitation project we’ve ever done--and we’ve done 300 across the nation,” said Maureen McAvey, director of development for the Carley Capital Group. “We had every example of structural failure imaginable in this building.”

Only weeks away from the grand opening, construction workers and hotel staff were racing to finish details ranging from painting the structure’s walls, pillars and ceilings in rose, beige and blue tones to moving a heavy 7-foot wooden Buddha statue from a cocktail lounge to a new museum room 100 feet away.

They were also hurrying to complete the formidable task of covering the hotel’s exterior with a coat of adobe-colored stucco that some residents consider a travesty.

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“When people see the fresh beige stucco exterior they say the inn looks like a giant Taco Bell,” Rounds mused. “But I think the Riverside atmosphere will put a nice patina on it very quickly.”

“It doesn’t even look like the Mission Inn anymore,” said Jennifer Watson, 34, of Riverside, who frequented the hotel’s restaurants and shady courtyards with friends on weekends before it closed. “It’s a shame they couldn’t have made the renovations and preserved the true atmosphere of the landmark we are all very proud of.”

As for the spirit of Frank Miller, which some contend paces in Room 413, where he died in 1935, “I don’t think Frank will have a problem with this--he was always changing things,” Rounds quipped.

But Miller’s ghost is anything but a laughing matter for Omni officials, who downplay suggestions that the hotel is haunted.

“Ghosts have a negative connotation,” said Vicki A. Derlachter, the hotel’s director of marketing and sales. “It is not a positive marketing tool.”

However, she added, “Come Halloween, we could have one hell of a time with it.”


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