Location: Riverside, California
Date visited: February 27, 2016
The Mission Inn Museum is supported by the Mission Inn Foundation and is located inside the curious and wonderful Mission Inn Hotel & Spa. The museum offers exhibits, a delightfully stocked museum store, and docent-led tours of the National Historic Landmark hotel, now a privately owned and for-profit business.
The Mission Inn Hotel, the brainchild of Frank Miller, was built between 1903-1931 and was added onto the existing Glenwood Cottages hotel service; built by Miller’s father in the 1870’s and already operating on the site. The Millers owned the entire city block, and Frank Miller quickly expanded his portfolio to include real estate throughout the city. Frank Miller was a prolific collector of art and artifacts, and amassed an enormous collection sourced from around the globe. His own travels through the Pacific and Asia, plus his relationships with royals and dignitaries resulted in a collection of high quality. Miller died in 1935 and the family sold the property in 1956, one step in a slow decline after the hotel’s glory period of the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s. The Mission Inn was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977 to help save the crumbling complex from demolition (the city was hungry for a parking garage). After several partial renovations and changes of ownership, Duane Roberts formed the Historic Mission Inn Corporation, purchased the complex, and began renovations in 1992. During Roberts’ fixes, the Mission Inn set a Guinness World Record for “largest fumigation tent” but things quickly improved as Roberts and his family brought the hotel back to life and back to its status as a premier feature of Riverside. The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa (for profit) and the Mission Inn Foundation (non-profit) operate independently of each other, but have a relationship which allows both organizations to succeed. The hotel, spa, and restaurants create an attractive destination for worldwide travelers while the Foundation offers carefully controlled public tours of the interior, educational history programming, and community outreach.
The relatively small exhibit space offers diverse exhibit content. While a clear timeline doesn’t run throughout the historical exhibits, the objects are interesting. Displays include adobe bricks from the 1870’s Glenwood Cottages, letters from Frank Miller and family, photos of celebrity guests at the Mission Inn, and components from the historic structure such as the 17th century Anton Clock, created in Germany and shipped to Miller to install in the hotel. It is my understanding that the Foundation is currently raising funds in order to renovate the museum and store, so the exhibit may see some much needed improvements in the next year. There is plenty of high-quality content but like many small organizations, the exhibit struggles to put on a polished display. Despite that, give yourself time to read some of the labels and peer at Frank Miller’s letters, documents, and personal effects.
A second gallery space features temporary exhibits. The next exhibit, California Here We Come! Romance, Identity, and Boosterism in Southern California, opens March 1. It will explore Boosterism and travel in Riverside and southern California in the 1870’s up to the present, and specifically the Mission Inn’s activity and status during this period. In addition to the exhibits, docent-led tours of the National Historic Landmark Mission Inn Hotel are the primary interpretive activity of the museum. Since it is an operational hotel, tours are limited to groups of around 15 people. The public is not allowed past the lobby unless they are hotel guests or attending an event, so the 90-minute walking tours allow visitors to glimpse special areas of the hotel including the St. Francis of Assisi Chapel and the Ho-o Kan. In addition to providing information on the architecture, the docents are extremely knowledgeable about the art and artifacts within the hotel. Many of the pieces are older than the hotel, collected by Frank Miller during travels or accepted as gifts from the many international visitors.
The docents of the Mission Inn are a relatively unique type in the museum world. They are a volunteer organization which operate under the museum’s non-profit organization, the Mission Inn Foundation, and a highly developed Docent Council selected from the docent corps. The application period for new docents is open once a year in the autumn, and training takes about 8 months. Docents-in-Training learn content from lectures, workshops, demonstration tours, and reading material, then develop their own tour script at the end of the training. This tour script is carefully vetted by Mission Inn Museum & Foundation staff and the Docent Council for accuracy, length, and appropriateness. A shorter, alternate tour is developed by the museum’s Youth Ambassadors. These volunteer high school students learn about the history and architectural highlights of the Mission Inn, and lead 30-minute family friendly tours in addition to helping at public events and museum programs.
The Mission Inn Museum is open for visits and tours seven days a week. Tours cost $13/person, but during Riverside’s six-week long Festival of Lights around the holidays, tours are $16/person. Reservations are recommended especially for groups larger than 8. After your tour, you can explore the Museum Store for locally made art, ceramics, jewelry, and more, or grab a bite at one of the many dining establishments within the Mission Inn Hotel; don’t miss Casey’s Cupcakes if you have a sweet tooth!
Note: I was a temporary employee for the Mission Inn Foundation at various times in 2015 and 2016. I was responsible for assisting with events, marketing, and membership recording.