Nellie Coffman and the Desert Inn


Nellie Coffman & The Desert Inn

By: Kitty Kieley Hayes
Originally Presented in our DENO Newsletter
Winter 2013

Thanks to DENO board member Cindy Quin, we are pleased to present this article written by Kitty Hayes for our DENO Newsletter. Kitty is Nellie Coffman’s great granddaughter. Her grandfather was Nellie’s youngest son, Owen Earl Coffman. Earl—besides helping his mother manage the Desert Inn—was the driving force/visionary for the building of the tramway. Kitty’s mother, Elizabeth Coffman was the fourth non-indian child born in Palm Springs.

Nellie Coffman and the Desert Inn

Chapter Two

Palm Springs began on the path to world renown in December of 1909 when Dr. and Mrs. Harry Coffman arrived to open The Desert Inn and Sanatorium. It started when Dr. Coffman’s wife, Nellie, contracted pneumonia - he sent her to Idyllwild to recover. On a horse-back ride though the mountains one day, she was at a desert overlook south of Tahquitz Canyon. There she saw the glistening desert shimmering below, and heard it calling to her. After her recovery, she returned to the family home in Santa Monica, and later made a visit to the village of Palm Springs. She stayed at Elizabeth and Welwood Murray’s Palm Springs Hotel, located on the north-east corner Palm Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Drive. Their visitors came to relax and enjoy the beauties of the isolated wilderness. Others came for the healing properties of the desert climate and the hot spring operated by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Her visit convinced her that this was the place where the family needed to be.
When she returned to Santa Monica, she persuaded Harry to give up his medical practice, and sell their property, and move to the desert. She wanted to start a hotel. Harry, having watched Nellie’s parents operate a hotel, did not want to cater to guests. So they decided to operate a sanatorium where guests could come to receive medical treatments, and practice living a healthy life with good food, exercise, and proximity to nature. Her son George Roberson, a student at the Arizona School of Mines, and their son Earl Coffman joined them and the family began to build the business.

The family started with a few buildings on a few acres at the northwest corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Drive. The guests and the patients came for treatments to heal the ill. However, many had trouble paying their bills. So after a few years, it became solely a hotel; and Harry continued to be the village physician. With their success, they bought parcels abutting the original property until they owned nearly 17 acres.
After about 10 years, Harry and Nellie separated - Harry relocated to Calexico to establish a medical practice. Nellie was determined to continue the hotel, dreaming of building a world-class facility. She was inspired by the Mission Inn in Riverside. She worked tirelessly to provide the best quality of care and comfort for the guests. She saw the importance of publicity, and often wrote the copy for promotions for the inn. With her superior hospitality, she established clientele among the captains of industry and influential patrons, and the hotel garnered a reputation for excellence.
In the early 1920s, George Roberson introduced his friend and building designer, Charles Tanner, to his mother. She described her dream to him and together they worked on plans for the mission style buildings for the resort.

Nellie Coffman and the Desert Inn

Chapter Three

An early guest at the hotel was Thomas O’Donnell who prospered developing the oil fields of Long Beach. He came to the hotel to relax, and struck up a close relationship with Nellie. When it came time to build her dream, he guided her to obtain loans through Security Bank in Riverside to finance the construction. As part of the construction project, Nellie originated the first land lease in Palm Springs by leasing a parcel of land to Mr. and Mrs. O’Donnell on the hillside west of the inn. Mr. Tanner designed a home there for the O’Donnells with Nellie overseeing its construction. Each day, morning and night all summer long, that 58-year-old woman climbed the trail to the site to inspect what was being done.
As the buildings began to take shape, Nellie’s sons played an integral part in the process. George, an engineer, and Earl were there daily to help with the building and inspect to work. They kept in constant contact with the builder and the bank, insisting on the best quality for every step of the process.
By 1926 the buildings were complete. The fabulous new hotel continued to serve its usual clientele and attract new guests. Word of mouth and appropriate publicity continued to draw wonderful guests. With her sons, they continued to build a reputation for superior quality with attention to every detail. In order to provide a superior level of service, there were two employees for every guest. Guest’s every need could be met. The publicity for The Desert Inn always included wonderful descriptions of Palm Springs and she coined the expression “America’s Foremost Desert Resort”.

Nellie was not only concerned with building the family business, she was also deeply involved in life in the village. All of the staff at the hotel were housed and fed in hotel facilities.
Having come from very humble circumstances and having been blessed with good fortune, she wished to share her bounty. Charity was a leading theme in her life. She assisted many families in need, sending carpenters from the hotel to repair leaking roofs and giving beds to families with none. She was one of the original founders of Welfare and Friendly Aid which became United Way. She was a sponsor of the founding of the Palm Springs Women’s Club and gave support for the founding of St. Theresa School. She gave donations to every church in the village. For her hard work to develop Palm Springs and many kindnesses, she was called Mother Coffman.
Education was foremost in her mind. She established a school at The Desert Inn for the children of guests. She was active in the elementary school that was the only campus for the Desert School District. She served with distinction on the board of trustees for over 20 years, helping with the planning and supervision of Frances Stevens School. She was also the desert’s representative on the Banning Union High School District, and lobbied that body to establish a campus in Palm Springs. She succeeded with the school opening in the fall of 1938. This is the 75th anniversary of that school. For her efforts, Nellie N. Coffman Junior High School was named in her honor.
She instilled in the family and the employees a desire to always serve the guests and all of the villages with kindness and care. The Desert Inn established the reputation of being a haven of peace, tranquility, and quality services.

Nellie Coffman and the Desert Inn

Chapter Four

The Desert Inn continued to serve it guests, provide employment for villagers, and promote Palm Springs, After World War II, the family was finally able to pay the entire mortgage. Granny enjoyed the tranquility of the hotel with family and guests who had become dear friends.
Because there were no evaporative coolers, let alone air conditioning at The Desert Inn, the hotel closed on the first weeks of May for the summer and reopened at the end of October. Because of the summer heat, Granny purchased a small cottage as a summer retreat in Banning where it is about 20 degrees cooler. It was there that in June of 1950, she had a heart attack and died. On the day of her funeral, every business in Palm Springs closed for the hours of her service and Welwood Murray Cemetery was crowded with villagers who came to pay their last respects for the woman who loved and helped them over so many years.

Desert Inn Palm Springs  1913

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