By Michael Diggin
By Michael Diggin
Water dripping down stone walls.
The darkness of the tomb.
And all below the comforts of downtown Riverside.
All this ambiance is available in Riverside’s very own catacombs. Yes, there are catacombs in Riverside. Right under the historic Mission Inn, to be precise.
Light is scarce in the catacombs; many areas are drenched in darkness. Stained glass windows line one corridor, diffusing the light to a colorful glow. Pillars and conduits block many of these windows, obscuring their beauty.
Light and sound from the streets about drift down through the few windows and grates set high in the walls. The commonplace sounds produce a sense of unreality, of a disconnected piece of the past lodged under modern hustle and bustle.
The concrete ceilings of some sections are textured to resemble wood panels, complete with raised knots and diverse wood grains. The roughened complexity of these false boards is a tactile delight.
The smells of dust and damp combine to form an earthy aroma, akin to drying clay.
The Riverside catacombs aren’t quite the famous catacombs of Paris, France, known for their miles of twisting corridors, filled with centuries of death’s remnants. Technically, they aren’t even catacombs, considering the lack of moldering remains. The catacombs are simply a name these subterranean passages have come to be known by over the years.
There are many urban legends about the catacombs. Like most urban legends there is a seed of truth in this garden of myth and misinformation. Construction of the catacombs began in 1910 and continued through 1917. Frank Miller, the original owner of the Mission Inn, began building the catacombs with the Cloister Walk, which was designed to connect a newly built Cloister Music Room to the hotel proper. The Mission Inn Museum displays notes that the intention of the extensive construction was to capitalize on a resurgence of interest in California’s historic Catholic Missions.
The hotel was originally named the Glenwood, but the with the renovation of the buildings to resemble Mission architecture, it became known as the Glenwood Mission Inn, and eventually the Mission Inn.
The catacombs were a popular attraction that accentuated the mission theme and they expanded over time to include much of the area under the hotel property.
The catacombs eventually comprised about 12 rooms, alcoves and walkways, each with its own title and theme. Miller used them to display his diverse collection of world art. There was an Oriental room, called the Sala de Oriente; two Native American rooms, the Khiva and the Hogan; as well as various catholic inspired areas, like the Bautisterio, or baptistery. The displays even included wax figures of a full papal court. The Mission Inn’s management closed the catacombs in 1985 after a complete restoration of the property. The buildings had to be retrofitted to comply with new building and fire codes. According to the display at the museum, the catacombs underwent extensive alterations leaving them unsafe for public use according to modern regulations. They were closed to the public because of this and remain closed to this day.
The management also removed all of the artwork to prevent further damage by the damp, dark conditions. Some of the salvaged artwork is available for viewing at the museum.
The urban legends speak of tunnels full of human remains that wind under large areas of downtown Riverside. According to legend, the catacombs encompass the area below the old 14th Street cemetery, including secret entrance. Supposedly, there is a tunnel that extends to an entrance on Mount Rubidoux as well. There are even tales of sewer construction that broke into the catacombs, making another entrance for those determined or lucky enough to find it. The catacombs are real; these myths are not.
Dennis Sperat, food and beverage director of the Mission Inn, says they are planning to use the catacombs for private dinner parties in the near future. The catacombs’ history and architecture will some day be available for the enjoyment of any who wish to rent them.
The catacombs are a well-known but little understood part of Riverside history. The reality and the urban legends both add texture to the landscape of the city. The facts about the catacombs are quite interesting in their own right, yet the macabre tales that aren’t quite true add flavor and mystery to everyday life.
Even if the catacombs are reopened, the legends will ;persist. People will tell tales of the real catacombs beneath these catacombs, and all the bodies they contain. Urban legends tend to have a life of their own.
If you would like to know more out the catacombs there is a temporary display in the Mission Inn Museum. Some of the artwork formerly in the catacombs is available for viewing, including three of the wax figures of the papal court.