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.

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