Gazing out through covered arches to the shrubbery and swimming pool beyond, I sipped my iced tea and listened to Mel Haber talk about one of his favorite subjects, Palm Springs' Ingleside Inn.
'Haber's modesty belies his accomplishment. Some of the things hes "maintained" over the years include orchid trees and 70-year-old vines. The latticed ceiling over our heads is laced with pothos vines.
The tangled trunk of a mesquite tree dominating the grassy front yard looks like it could have been planted by the Humphrey Birge family, who built the original Spanish-style estate at the foot of Mt. San Jacinto in 1925. The Birges owned the Pierce Arrow Motor Company. Haber says they traveled a lot and lovingly filled their home with antiques and priceless furniture from around the world.
Ten years later, at the demise of the Birge matriarch, the property was sold to Ruth Hardy, a lady from Indiana who turned the estate into a little hotel just for the "invited." Operating it as a private club and closing six months of the year, she held high standards for both her establishment and her guests. If you were invited by one of the guests, you had to first obtain Mrs. Hardy's approval.
Thus began the veritable "Who's Who" of show business, finance, and political guests. Haber says Ruth Hardy also left her mark on Palm Springs as a City Councilwoman, responsible for lighting the trees on Palm Canyon Drive, and a park in town was named after her.
After purchasing The Ingleside Inn, Haber completely renovated the entire property, but not without consulting the people who already worked there. "I put great value on objectivity," Haber explains. "I listened to everybody who had anything to say, because I had no knowledge."
Haber cared as much about the people as the place. Many employees stayed on "because of the environment and working conditions."
Last fall (2003) saw the completion of a $400,000 renovation that included new furnishings, wall treatments, bathroom updates and many additions. "It's basically a new look for the new season," says Haber.
Sweeping views of Mt. San Jacinto and the Santa Rosa Mountains and the surrounding desert landscape notwithstanding, The Ingleside Inn provides a tranquil spot to relax or explore Palm Springs. While the town has morphed into a sophisticated tourist destination since Hollywood discovered it in the 1930s, the quaint charm of a "village" is still intact. Staying at the Ingleside Inn is like staying at a friend's country estate.
The landscaping on the two and a half acres of manicured grounds is old and lush in a way that you won't find in a new development. The main house (it's so comfortable, it's hard to think of as an inn) sits in a garden setting behind wrought-iron gates. The narrow front driveway often hosts a limousine, a Rolls, or a Bentley. Many of the antiques that decorate the thirty suites, mini suites, and villas came with the property when Haber purchased it years ago.
Leaving our room to explore the nooks and crannies of the grounds, I notice a woman reclining in a lawn swing, reading a book. Facing the fountain in the center of the garden, she's the epitome of relaxation.
The pool area is surrounded by lawn, and an outdoor ceramic bar provides self service ice tea and ice water all day. It all looks so unlike any hotel pool area I've ever visited that I feel like I'm really in the host's back yard.
Haber isn't shy about admitting, "I don't like to travel." He sees the questioning look on my face and adds, "I'm a creature of comfort. Give me a good book and let me lay by the pool."
The Inn's General Manager, Armida Pedrin, is an example of Haber's excellent people skills. She's been with the property for nearly 22 years. She talks about a family atmosphere: "A lot of us have different days off, but when we can, families get together."
Pedrin's just one of several long-time employees. Brian Ellis, the Maitre 'd at Melvyn's, the adjacent restaurant Haber established, has greeted guests there for "thirty-plus" years.
One of the chefs, Juan, proudly proclaims he's been with the property 22 years. Dave, the day shift bartender, smiles to remember his past 24 years with Melvyn's.
I question what appears to be the entrance to a root celler in the cement just outside the door to our room. Head engineer Manny, also 24 years with The Ingleside Inn, describes an underground tunnel that leads to one of the houses up on the hill. He says, "It was probably built during prohibition." Are there ghosts here? Manny smiles. "I can tell you many stories but I've been told not to because it scares people." When I press, he says, "It's mostly strange noises and voices, nothing really scary, but spooky nonetheless."
"Well, if I were a ghost," I joke with my husband, "the Ingleside Inn would be a great place to live."
The Ingleside Inn is a 1925 Palm Springs landmark that is being rediscovered by a new set. Never mind that Lily Pons and Garbo slept here.
Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt came to the Inn after their media frenzy Malibu wedding. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver often get away to the Ingleside Inn.
"Celebrity weddings here garnered a full page in People Magazine," Haber says. He tells me David Borianis married a former Playboy bunny here.
"Kate Hudson literally grew up here," he adds. "Her mother, Goldie Hahn, brought her two daughters here all the time."
Haber's become somewhat of a Palm Springs celebrity in his own right. He's President of the Board of Directors for Angel View, providing a living alternative for families with disabled children and the oldest non-profit organization in the Cochella Valley. Though he"s well-known in the community, he insists celebrities "don't come because I'm here."
Haber reflects on his years in the hospitality business. "Where else can a guy like me meet a President or a celebrity? This is a western phenomenon. I had a hot saloon. What I learned is you can get your fifteen minutes of fame without killing somebody."
Kremer tells me The Ingleside Inn and Melvyn's Restaurant have been featured twice on "The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous".
"Palm Springs is paradise," Haber says as he finishes his tea. "Here I learned the phrase 'quality of life.'" He points out that it's just a two-hour drive from San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles, and 82 minutes from Big Bear.
"There's access from here to everything you want," adds Haber. "I have no desire to leave here, none whatsoever." He explains that "Here you get the feeling there's nothing else you could or should be doing, totally at peace with yourself. You're not missing anything. It's an easy life - no tension, no pressure."
After two nights and three days at the Ingleside Inn, we couldn-t agree more.
Feaature and photos by Carolyn Proctor, Las Vegas Correspondent.
Read The Jetsetters Magazine feature: "The Ingleside: The Place to See and To Be Seen!"