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An Inland Empress

Peeking into a town's past, where the wealthy wintered in marvelous regal mansions and where citrus was king


REDLANDS — The sign on the Caprice Cafe on State Street downtown promised "Heated Patio"--as if we needed it on this day when temperatures topped 100 degrees. Like an obnoxious aunt who you know won't go home soon, hot weather had arrived in the Inland Empire, bringing with it its disagreeable cousin, smog.

Those are two good reasons to avoid this city of 67,000 in San Bernardino County from May through October. But there are scores of other excuses for a weekend visit any time: the 4,000 structures that, the city boasts proudly, have been standing a half-century or more.

It may have been my approaching birthday that made me want to spend time in a place where things are older than I. So, on a Saturday morning in late May, I pointed the car east on Interstate 10, picked up my friend Janette in Fontana and headed for the onetime winter home of the wealthy.

Armed with a booklet from the Redlands Chamber of Commerce outlining a driving tour of the city, we decided to use the car to beat the heat while seeing the sights. It would also give me a chance to reacquaint myself with the area. As a resident of nearby Highland for two years in the mid-1990s, I was definitely a Redlands wannabe. Who would not want to be part of a city that appreciates and preserves its past?

Still, Redlands doesn't appear to be a bastion of history the first few blocks after turning right from the I-10 Orange Street ramp, where the usual chain stores line the way. But then you reach State Street, with its brick buildings and angle parking, and the town's character begins to emerge.

Redlands, founded in the late 1800s, reflects the people who settled here: It's Midwestern and East Coast with a dash of California. Frank Brown, who, with E. G. Judson, co-founded the town, first called it the Red Lands Colony, for the color of its soil.

Judson, a stockbroker from New York, and Brown, a civil engineer from New Haven, Conn., realized the agricultural potential of their new enterprise and harnessed water to turn their colony into a center for citrus, particularly the navel orange. At its peak, Redlands had 9,000 acres in citrus; today, that number has shrunk to about 1,500.

Along these streets--Brookside, Olive, Fern, Cypress, Palm and Highland--you can see a mix of older homes, from Craftsman style to Queen Annes and Italian villas, many lovingly preserved. The granddaddy of them all is the Morey Mansion at 190 Terracina Blvd.

If you experience a sense of deja vu as you look at this architectural Mixmaster of a house, it's because you've probably seen it before. Dubbed "American's Favorite Victorian Home," it appears in books and ads and even starred in the 1952 movie "Talk About a Stranger," with George Murphy and Nancy Davis Reagan.

It was not cinema but citrus that gave rise to this three-story dwelling with the onion dome, French mansard tower and plenty of Queen Anne touches. In the 1880s, Sarah and David Morey, already fairly well-to-do, arrived in Redlands. The enterprising Sarah Morey owned orange trees in a nursery down on Brookside, and she sold all 25,000 of them in 1890, raising the $20,000 she needed to build her dream house. Terracina leads to Smiley Heights, which turns into Serpentine and Sunset Drive. Industrialist Andrew Carnegie and brewing magnate J. R. Pabst lived up here. The newest mansions have outstanding views out of smog season. On this day, the "curtain," as it's called, was partly up, affording us views of the San Bernardino Mountains.

The road passes Memorial Cemetery, then loops down Alessandro. We stopped to see the historic mansions (from the street only, because these are private residences, remember), then headed to the Nordhoff residence at 1125 Pacific St., built for $15,000 just as the last century was ending.

The genteel, buttery-colored house, with white trim and a circular veranda, was the home of Walter Nordhoff, whose father, Charles, wrote "California: For Health, Pleasure and Residence, a Book for Travellers and Settlers," widely credited with inspiring people to move to California.

Back in my car, it was two women against the heat, so we paused in mid-tour to head downtown, seeking refuge inside the Caprice Cafe. With its exposed beams, skylights and plants--and temperatures at least 30 degrees cooler than the outdoors--the Caprice already had much to recommend it. Janette had the Indo-Chinoise salad, with buckwheat noodles and tofu, and I tried the grilled brie with portabello mushrooms. We left feeling cool and well-fed.

The tour winds up through Caroline Park and down around Prospect Park. Nearby is Kimberly Crest House and Gardens, among the most enduring and endearing houses in Redlands. It is open to the public, so we chose to return the next day for a proper look.

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