San Gorgonio Inn told the story of the region —and the nation
San Gorgonio Inn, demolished today, has been a landmark of Banning for more than 100 years. The Inn also was an icon of San Gorgonio Pass, which for countless years has offered travelers rest and respite between coast and desert.
Along the way the Inn has mirrored the history of the region — and the nation.
The Inn’s first incarnation, the Bryant House built from 1884-85, tells the story of the 1880s land boom that brought thousands of newcomers to Southern California. They transformed the landscapes. Communities began sprouting.
Not long after Southern Pacific had laid down the first railroad tracks through the Pass, the Banning Land and Water Company plotted a map laying out the future community of Banning. Their map included a hotel, which gave travelers, and prospective buyers, a place to stay.
The hotel’s name became The Banning when Capt. Thomas Fraser and his wife, Floretta, acquired it in the late 1880s. When Capt. Fraser died, his widow took over. In this era the hotel also became a centerpiece of the community, and it would remain so for the rest of its existence.
An 1893-94 directory of newly formed Riverside County described Banning as beginning to flourish with hundreds of acres of fruit trees and “several fine stores, a hotel, several churches and societies and a good school.” The directory names Fraser as the hotel proprietor; she would run the Banning for the next 30 years or so, along with her orchards. She became a community social leader.
In 1922 the Inn entered a new era, an age of travel and resorts. Fraser sold the Inn for $16,250 to John Livacich and Anton Gilich, according to Steve Lech, a Riverside County historian.
Not long after that, the hotel became the San Gorgonio Inn. Highway 99 was built. Cars were no longer new-fangled, instead filling the roads and enabling recreation and adventure.
The Inn added bungalows to attract guests who preferred private cabins, and advertised itself in Los Angeles, which was looking toward the desert for retreat and recreation. The Inn gained fame as a mainstay for travelers.
In 1930 the Inn changed again when it lost its oldest, most historic building to fire. The historic ledger was saved, showing that U.S. President Benjamin Harrison had stopped there in 1891 during his visit to Banning.
While guests could stay in the nearby bungalows, the rebuilt Inn was a restaurant only. Eventually the Inn stopped being a hotel altogether. The 1931 building with Spanish-style windows and tile roof is part of the Inn being torn down today.
During the Great Depression, the Inn also fell into hard times. Mrs. Fraser’s daughter regained control after a legal battle over debts. She sold the Inn after World War II to a pair of retired dancers.
Under Jack and Ria Beauvell, the Inn entered its best-known era as a center of hospitality in the golden age of the road. Highways 99 and 60 were two-lane highways that took travelers through Banning and Beaumont and lured them to roadside businesses.
The Inn also was a community hub, the place to go for family birthdays, anniversaries, and other occasions. The Googie-style architectural sign along Ramsey Avenue, another icon of the golden age of roadside service, advertised, “Good food.” People still talk about the hot biscuits with honey, and the chicken dinners advertised on the marquee.
Longtime Banning residents such as Bud Mathewson recall eating there several times weekly. “Come as you are,” the Beauvells advertised. They were well-loved in Banning, often called “Uncle Jack,” and “Aunt Ria.” When they died in the 1980s, one of their cooks, Chris Dallas, took over. Their portrait graced the restaurant’s wall as long as the Inn remained open.
But with the construction of Interstate 10, the Inn had begun its steady decline in the 1960s. Travel bypassed Banning’s downtown as well and tipped local businesses into an economic downturn that has lingered since. The Inn even briefly was a “gentleman’s club” in the 1990s.
The Inn exchanged hands a couple times and abruptly closed in 2006. The city redevelopment agency bought the Inn and about 2.5 acres in 2008 for $1.8 million. The Inn, city leaders decided, was too far gone to save and restore.