East of Pomona, California, is a city full of homes built by wealthy citizens at the turn of the 20th century.
By Maggie Kielpinski
Long before Palm Springs, California, became the winter playground of the Hollywood elite, Redlands, California, was the winter getaway of wealthy Midwesterners and Easterners in the 1890s.
The town lies in a sleepy valley along the old Spanish Mission Trail, approximately 40 minutes east of Pomona, California, via Interstate 10. Motorhomers traveling to or from FMCA’s 91st Family Reunion and Motorhome Showcase, to be held March 26-29 at Fairplex in Pomona, will want to consider nosing around this historic and beautiful town.
Redlands was settled by several groups, but the actual incorporation of the town is credited to two transplanted Easterners, Frank E. Brown and E.G. Judson. They dreamed of a utopia: quiet, tree-lined streets surrounded by acres of farmland and orange groves. By the time Brown and Judson built the dam that created Big Bear Lake in the nearby mountains in 1884, the word was out and Redlands was well on its way to being the “navel orange capital of the world.” It was incorporated in 1888.
Along with the orange barons, wealthy Midwesterners showed up as well. The warm, dry climate and the sweet smell of orange blossoms, plus the promise of large tracts of land with graded streets and cement sidewalks, were all they needed. The well-off brought their culture and their philanthropy. Movers and shakers of the time, such as the Phelps-Dodge family and the Kimberly family (of Kimberly-Clark fame), frequently entertained U.S. presidents, members of the Carnegie and Harriman families, and famous contemporaries such as poet Robert Frost. Grand homes were built on these tree-lined streets, adorned with hand-cut stone curbs in the architecture of the day. Victorian, California Craftsman, and Mission Revival styles still exist. Philanthropy created libraries, memorials, parks, a university, and the Redlands Bowl amphitheater.
Some say the hard freeze of 1913 was a blessing in disguise, because it slowed Redlands’ growth. When World War I further stalled the economy, Redlands went from being a boomtown to being just another sleepy country town. The wealthy chose to continue enjoying the dry, mostly balmy climate, and they and their descendants stayed in their grand mansions; many of these homes remain today, beautifully maintained and lovingly restored.
In the hills south of the civic center, you’ll find splendid homes standing as though the Victorian era ended only yesterday. This amazing bonanza of Victorian/Queen Anne mansions, California Craftsman cottages, and Mediterranean villas is unique in its bounty. The city promotes its stock of posh palaces in a brochure that states it has more than 4,000 structures that are 50 years or older; many of them are occupied by descendants of their original owners.
Some homes are hidden, tucked away in the hills along narrow lanes overgrown with old eucalyptus and native oaks; the untamed landscaping cascades over rock walls and spills into the roadway. Other homes are exposed clearly, lining the town’s broad streets.
Armed with the Historical Redlands Driving Tour brochure and a city map that I picked up at the chamber of commerce, I just happened to start at the most spectacular: the Morey Mansion on Terracina Boulevard. More than any other, this west-side manse reflects the Orange Empire. It was built using money that Sarah Morey earned in profits from her citrus nursery.
The exterior highlights include a French mansard roof and an onion-shaped dome. Many gables lighten the house with enormous arched windows, and lacy ornamental details abound. No wonder it’s called “America’s Favorite Victorian Home.” Once a palatial bed and breakfast, the grounds and house are still immaculate. The manse was acquired by new owners in September 2014, and, at this writing, was not open for tours.
I continued up along Smiley Heights, once known as Canyon Crest Park, created by the Smiley Brothers and since subdivided into large parcels for midcentury family homes. The views over the valley to the San Bernardino Mountains beyond are wide and expansive. At Highland Avenue I revisited the turn of the (20th) century. This was once the address in Redlands; with so many stately homes, it was known as the “Butler Belt.” Here you’ll find homesteads built between 1890 and 1910 in a mix of styles on large estates, most with orange groves still intact.
Closer to town, at Olive Avenue, you see a cornucopia of architectural styles. These include a 1903 Moorish-style home with rococo curlicues once owned by St. Louis, Missouri, developer William F. Holt. A gorgeous green Craftsman-style dwelling built in 1910 was inspired by Pasadena architects Greene and Greene. These are the remains of the citrus estates that flourished before land was subdivided in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Historic downtown Redlands is a walkable seven blocks along Orange Street, bounded by Olive Avenue in the south and Pearl Avenue in the north. Business continues in turn-of-the-century brick buildings that line Orange Street, housing specialty stores, restaurants, and cafes. State Street, the main shopping thoroughfare, has a 1960s feel, with diagonal parking under a canopy of Indian laurel trees. It’s a great place to while away a few hours strolling the quiet blocks, past murals depicting the city’s history, or to get a snack at one of the restaurants or cafes.
Private homes aren’t open, but many museums and historic homes welcome visitors. The Kimberly Crest House & Gardens at 1325 Prospect Drive is open for tours Thursday, Friday, and Sunday from 1:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.; tours last approximately 45 minutes. Built in 1897, this Victorian was acquired by John Kimberly, one of the founders of the Kimberly Clark Corporation. The extraordinary wealth of these scions of the gilded age is grandly displayed, and even if you miss the tour, the Italianate gardens are well worth a visit.
The A.K. Smiley Public Library in Smiley Park was donated to the city in 1898 by brothers Alfred and Albert Smiley, educators and resort-hotel owners from New York. Local architect T.R. Griffith created a mission-style building with Islamic and Mediterranean motifs. The building is a state historic landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. Graceful timber arches line the barrel-vaulted ceiling. Clerestory windows flood the reading room with natural light, and much of the golden oak furniture dating from 1898 is still in use. It feels reverential and quiet, but it is still a working library used by area residents and is renowned for housing important research materials.
Behind the library is The Lincoln Memorial Shrine, a museum that garners top ratings from online reviewers. The shrine began with a donation from Robert Watchorn, a British coal miner who made his fortune in America, and who admired Lincoln as the personification of the American dream. Two wings were added to the original rotunda in 1998 to house the growing collection of Lincoln memorabilia, which includes letters from Civil War soldiers, strands of Lincoln’s hair, and a wreath that lay on his coffin. Visitors also can view a video about the Civil War and examine an original Norman Rockwell painting of Lincoln. The collection is open Tuesday through Sunday from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., and admission is free.
Smiley Park is also the home of the Redlands Bowl and the Summer Music Festival, a series of free concerts offered June through August on Tuesday and Friday evenings.
The Historical Glass Museum opened in 1985. The 1903 Victorian cottage at 1157 N. Orange St. houses a collection that includes household glass and art glass, as well as pieces once owned by entertainer Liberace. This diverse collection of American glassware is one of the largest west of the Mississippi. The museum maintains a research library, and glass is available for sale in the gift shop. The doors are open Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4:00 p.m. and during the week to groups.
The San Bernardino County Museum at 2024 Orange Tree Lane is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. The displays touch on the Indian history of the area, with fine examples of their baskets and hunting and fishing tools; pioneer history is also featured, including the vehicles that settlers used (even a small display to remind us that the area was a major way station on historic Route 66). Most impressive, though, is the extraordinary display of land and water birds, native and migratory to San Bernardino County. This museum is as much about natural history as human history.
The Edwards Mansion was moved to its location behind the county museum in the 1970s and is open daily for self-guided tours. It is a popular wedding and events venue.
You’ll find the Asistencia Mission de San Gabriel at 26930 Barton Road, behind a plain white adobe wall. Established in 1819, the ranch was run by the Franciscan fathers with the help of local Indians before it was abandoned with the secularization of the missions. After a succession of families worked the ranch until about 1870, the buildings were abandoned and fell into ruin.
In the 1930s, as part of a Works Progress Administration project, the San Bernardino County Historical Society built a reproduction of the Asistencia not far from its original site. Today it is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Inside is a wedding chapel, cactus garden, bell tower, and wishing well. In addition, a museum contains exhibits that reveal the history of this area.
The Redlands of today is proud to call itself a small town, and strives to keep it so. And who wouldn’t love to live in a town with a Quality of Life Department? You can still buy bags of Redlands-grown oranges, and local farmers are once again selling their produce at farm stands along State Route 38. The wide streets are lined with crape myrtles, redwoods, oaks, and palms, and life moves at a slower pace. You’ll find more stop signs than traffic lights. The sweet scent of orange blossoms fills the air in certain seasons, and the surrounding mountains pop like a painted diorama in the clear winter skies. An empire, indeed.
Redlands Chamber of Commerce
1 E. Redlands Blvd.
Redlands, CA 92373
RV parking is limited in Redlands, but daytime parking may be available at the Redlands Mall, at Orange Street and Redlands Boulevard. Plenty of parking for autos can be found. Local camping for RVs is available at Yucaipa Regional Park, 33900 Oak Glen Road in Yucaipa (42 full-hookup sites); phone (909) 790-3127; www.sbcountyparks.com.