In 1909, when President William Howard Taft visited Riverside’s Mission Inn, founder Frank Miller led him to an outsized chair specially constructed for Taft’s 300-pound-plus frame. The president was not charmed.
“Did you have to make the chair so large?” Taft is said to have asked. He at first refused to sit in it, but later relented with the proviso that no photos be taken.
Miller meant no offense -- he just liked to do things in a big way. The 239-room inn, which has been described as a cross between a European villa and a California mission, is a block long and chock-full of artifacts from around the world.
Miller’s tradition of the grand gesture continues with present-day owner Duane Roberts, who is currently staging the hotel’s annual Festival of Lights, a holiday ceremony featuring 3.5 million lights and thousands of poinsettias as well as Christmas decorations including toy soldiers, Santas and elves. The display, which closes Jan. 3, is free to the public.
“When I was a little kid, my parents would take me to the neighborhoods where houses were lit up at Christmastime,” Roberts said. “Little kids love lights. You should see how their eyes nearly bulge out when they come here now. I’m big on families bonding at Christmastime.”
Before Roberts purchased the property in 1992, the lights seemed to be dimming for the Mission Inn.
Miller had died in 1935, and the hotel had been in gradual decline since World War II. With the improvement of the highway system, tourists from Southern California turned their attention to Palm Springs and Las Vegas. Riverside talked of tearing down the inn and replacing it with a parking lot. It was closed for renovations for seven years.
And it wasn’t a particularly proud moment when the hotel was mentioned in the Guinness World Records in the category of world’s largest termite fumigation tent.
All of this changed with the arrival of Roberts, who restored the Old World charm of the inn, upgraded its restaurants and even brought in two macaws -- Napoleon and Joseph -- in memory of the birds that flew about there in the early 1900s.
The original macaws were known for “whistling at women passing by, much to the consternation of any nearby man thought to be the perpetrator,” wrote Steve Lech and Kim Johnson in “Riverside’s Mission Inn.”
Roberts, who started out his career in the food business -- “the innovation of the frozen burrito is my claim to fame,” he says -- has poured plenty of money into the hotel, including about $400,000 a year for the Festival of Lights. Business now doubles during the holidays. Rooms range from $190 to $1,400 per night.
The Mission Inn is a maze of courtyards, bell towers, chapels, fountains, restaurants and winding staircases. Harry Houdini may have been the only guest who didn’t fret about getting lost in the inn’s catacombs.
It began as the Glenwood Hotel in 1876, and was enlarged in sections from 1903 to 1931 by Miller, an eccentric who liked to dress up in a monk’s attire and hand out oranges to arrivals. Thus began the erroneous rumor that the inn once was a California mission.
Miller also carted in numerous artifacts, including a Spanish bell dated 1247, a 3,000-pound bell from China, and two bronze Spanish cannons from the 1700s. The cannons were moved indoors after some local students loaded one with firecrackers and set them off.
The Taft chair is in the lobby and visitors are invited to do what the president refused to: have their photos taken while sitting in it.
Ten presidents have signed the guest book, including Theodore Roosevelt, whose bodyguards were still nervous after the assassination of his predecessor, William McKinley. During Roosevelt’s visit, the lights in the hotel suddenly went out, and when Miller came running to see what was wrong, he found Roosevelt lying on the ground for his own protection, ringed by guards, docent Mel Gutierrez said.
About 300 weddings a year are held at the inn. Richard Nixon was married there, as was Bette Davis (No. 3 of her four).
Innumerable notables have spent the night there, including Albert Einstein, Booker T. Washington, Will Rogers, Amelia Earhart and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
One of the more unusual guests was a circus elephant named Schneider, who escaped from a train and invaded the premises in 1909. Apparently mistaking his reflection in the window of the hotel barber shop for another bull elephant, Schneider charged, bursting through the glass.
Miller took the incident in stride. “He said that was the only guest that was ever allowed to carry his own trunk,” Gutierrez said.