“Long ago the Serrano Indians had villages in the mountains and on the face of the mountain near the Arrowhead." – from part of a Serrano Indian story told by Serrano elders Martha Manuel to her daughter Pauline Murillo and later, to Dr. Clifford Trafzer
Little known to many of Southern California’s residents, the elegant white architecturally-renowned Arrowhead Springs Hotel -- grand centerpiece of a 1930s-40s Hollywood glamour-era resort featuring natural hot springs, lakes, tennis courts, pools, bungalows and more – straddles a plateau nestled on a 2,000-acre spread of rugged hills, bubbling hot springs and canyons in the San Bernardino Mountain foothills. The resort, situated at the base of the iconic 7.5-acre arrowhead-shaped natural landmark on the hillside above the City of San Bernardino sits mostly empty now, little used or known.
Nonetheless, the grand, 69-room white hotel stands sentry over the San Bernardino Valley. Built in 1939, the erstwhile playground of Hollywood’s celebrities was designed by renowned African American architect Paul R. Williams with Gordon P. Kaufman. It is filled with the stunning art deco interior designs and accouterments of Dorothy Draper. Its presence shadows Southern California’s cultural and historical legacies dating back to the centuries-long presence of Serrano Indians, whose ancestral homeland this is. It is a story that continues through the era of westward expansion, the establishment of San Bernardino and other inland cities and their citrus industries, Hollywood’s glamour years, World War II, 1960s-70s Christian revivalism and growth of the densely-populated metropolitan centers below.
Long before the beginning of mass westward expansion starting in 1851, when Mormon leader Brigham Young had a vision of an arrowhead on a mountainside and sent followers west from Utah to find and establish “a new Zion” there, the Yuhaaviatam clan of the Serrano people were here and in the surrounding highlands, mountains and passes of the area.
“The Arrowhead Resort property is within the aboriginal territories of the Serrano people. … This is one of the big reasons the tribe was interested in purchasing the property,” says Jacob Coin, Director of the Office of Public Affairs of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which purchased the resort this past May for an undisclosed sum. From 1961 up until that point, the Campus Crusade for Christ, a Christian faith-based organization now known as CRU, had owned the site.
“The area where the Arrowhead Springs property sits is referenced in many Serrano stories and has always been critical to our history and culture,” Vincent Duro, former San Manuel Tribal Chairman, has said. The hot springs, the centerpiece of the Arrowhead Springs Resort, was also well known to other American Indian people, including the Tongva and Cahuilla. Many, like the Serrano, were drawn to the hot springs for both physical and spiritual healing, says archaeologist Daniel McCarthy, former Director of Cultural Resources Management for the San Manuel Tribe . In addition to the cultural and historical value of the resort property and adjacent arrowhead landmark for tribal members, the tribe has also been seeking more space beyond its 900-acre reservation to accommodate its growing population, particularly for younger members who are reaching adulthood. According to Coin, the reservation, close to the Arrowhead Resort property, has no more room left to build more housing.
The beginning of the 150-year story of the Arrowhead Resort era, which includes the burning and rebuilding of a series of resorts due to wildfires, is extensively chronicled in the book Arrowhead Springs: California’s Ideal Resort (2013) written by historian Mark Landis. In 1864, D.N. Smith, who followed a vision similar to Young’s and emigrated to the San Bernardino Valley, established a tuberculosis and healing sanitarium at the site, where he practiced hydropathy, a “water cure” branch of medicine. According to the San Bernardino Sun Telegram in 1908, “So enthusiastic was he of the springs’ value in curing the ailments of man that his sanity was questioned even by those who knew of the wonderful healing properties of the water.”
The sanitarium facility included a “steam cave” and mud baths. It later expanded into a hotel, which drew an increasing number of visitors as tourism and settlement in Southern California blossomed. That hotel burned down in an 1886 wildfire. A second hotel, built in 1905, promoted “the hottest springs in the world,” with temperatures of 196 degrees. It was also during this time that the Arrowhead Springs company was organized to bottle and commercially market spring water from Arrowhead Springs, an enterprise continuing to this day, according to Landis.
By the 1930s, the glamour years of Hollywood had arrived. In 1938, at a price of $800,000, the resort passed into the ownership of big-screen luminaires Jay Paley, Joseph M. Schenck, Constance Bennett, Al Jolson, Darryl Zanuck and Claudette Colbert, who planned to renovate the resort to rival elite European health resorts. However, a wildfire that year burned the resort down. Williams and Kaufman were then hired to design a new 69-room hotel, for a cost of $1.5 million. The stunning white beauty they designed rests on the hillside to this day.
Time Magazine described the resort as “late California with a Southern Georgian trace.” The main part of the new building, six stories high, is boxy and built symmetrically with an imposing façade and centered front and back entries, overlooking the Inland Empire. The two, four-story adjoining wings are symmetrical to one another, spread out diagonally and sited lower to make it seem as if they were added at a later time. The looming, spectacular building, self-contained with its evenly-spaced windows, is tucked into a fold of the mountains, blending into its natural hillside setting with ease and also dominating the landscape. The original spa was preserved, but a modern overlay was added. Minimum rates in 1938 were $13 per day.
New York-based Draper, who considered herself a real estate stylist, was hired, according to Business Week, “to create the complete look for the resort from the drapes of chintz and tweed to the uniforms of the staff as well as small items such as toothpicks and swizzle sticks.” The hotel’s interiors were rendered, according to the Huntington Library archives of Paul R. Williams photographs of the resort, in “two-toned, paneled and lacquered doors (which) opened to a lounge decorated with marbleized wallpaper and Kelly green carpet,” along with “pine Flex wood (and) a malleable pine veneer (that) created an undulating organic feel to the hotel’s public rooms.
This new Arrowhead Resort was a dazzling hillside miracle in its 1930s and 1940s heyday. It attracted many visitors from the Hollywood elite, including Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland, Clark Gable as well as the infamous mobster Bugsy Siegel. Humphrey Bogart and Esther Williams filmed movie scenes there – many of Williams’ famed swimming scenes were filled in the scalloped-edged resort pool. However, the good times didn’t last long.
During World War II, the Arrowhead Resort property was commissioned as a Naval Hospital. With the end of the war, the resort transferred ownership in 1946 to the Hull group from Chicago, and was then purchased by Conrad Hilton in 1949 for $2 million. The resort flourished again for awhile – Elizabeth Taylor and Nicky Hilton honeymooned there in 1950 – and operated from 1951-1961 as a Hilton Hotel. Ultimately, the resort’s popularity languished as the wealthy and famous gained access to international resort destinations, thanks to air travel. Like many other resorts in inland Southern California, the Arrowhead Springs Resort passed into near-anonymity until CRU purchased the property.
In the late 1980s, CRU re-located its headquarters to Florida, and the resort sat mostly unused for decades. The property went up for sale in March, 1992. Although resort owners and the City of San Bernardino attempted to negotiate possible new uses of the resort, efforts failed until the San Manuel Tribe acquired the property this past spring.
For now, Arrowhead Springs Resort waits patiently beneath the giant white quartz and disintegrated granite arrowhead, awaiting the unfolding of its next undoubtedly exciting chapter. Although the resort is not currently open to the public, the presence of the resort, with its glittering memories, beckons. Some Southern California residents hope that the property may re-open as a casino and resort, similar to other high-end Indian casinos in the region. The Press-Enterprise reported that the San Manuel tribe already has designs to build schools, parks and ceremonial gathering places on the property, but that none of it has been confirmed.
One thing is for certain. No matter what lies in store for the future of the Arrowhead Springs Resort, the beauty of its legacy remains. As historian Landis says, “The beautiful hotel looks as grand as ever (and) the glamorous swimming pool shimmers and invites observers to take a dip where the stars once played.”
Mark Landis, Arrowhead Springs: California’s Ideal Resort. Landis Publications, 2013.
Steve Shaw, San Bernardino Historical Society.
Jacob Coin, Director of the Office of Public Affairs of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians phone interview Sept 26, 2016.
Daniel McCarthy, former Director of Cultural Resources Management for the San Manuel Tribe, phone interview Sept 25, 2016.
Paul R. Williams digital image collection, courtesy of the Huntington Library.