Shirley Temple with Nellie Coffman. Photo courtesy of the Palm Springs Historical Society

A bronze plaque at the Downtown Park in Palm Springs commemorates the former site of the Desert Inn, an historic hotel established by Nellie Coffman.

Coffman—ill and seeking the healthful properties of the desert air—arrived in Palm Springs in December 1908, with her husband and older son. The arrived following a long drought, when only about 10 white settlers and about 50 Native Americans remained.

As she improved, Nellie and her husband, Dr. Harry Lee Coffman, decided to establish a hotel and “sanatorium” to treat people suffering from pulmonary ailments. Harry gave up his medical practice so he and Nellie could realize their dreams.

They bought 1 3/4 acres across the road from Welwood Murray’s hotel for about $2,000 down. Family members today say they paid about $10,000 for the property. It included a house that was originally the vacation home of a wealthy San Francisco widow, Eleanor Martin, who left permanently during the drought. The house featured a thick granite fireplace and included stables in back. The property was bought from the wife of a San Diego businessman, Mrs. McKenzie, in September 1909.

On Oct. 16, 1909, Nellie hung a printed sign on the wooden porch post out front. It said simply, “The Desert Inn.”

The Coffmans also bought Lavinia Crocker’s Green Gables Health Resort, which consisted of a home and some tent houses located to the west of the property; they soon had an additional 35 acres. Nellie brought in more tent houses, made of canvas and wood, from Los Angeles for $85 each.

Born in Illinois in 1867 to James and Ruth Orr, Nellie Norton Orr had a younger brother and two sisters. Her father became manager of a Dallas hotel, so the family moved to Texas when Nellie was 10 years old.

Nellie married George Ball Roberson in 1887; he died in a fire before their son, George, was born on July 5, 1888. Her parents and siblings had moved to California, where they became neighbors of Charles Alan Coffman. The Orrs soon got into the hotel business in Santa Monica. Nellie and her son soon followed—and she became enamored with Coffman’s son, Harry. Nellie and Harry Coffman were married on March 5, 1891; their son, Owen Earl Coffman, was born on March 28, 1892.

With her parents’ hotel experience and Harry’s medical experience, the move to establish The Desert Inn seemed sound. They added rooms and permanent guest accommodations, making it a true hotel. The Coffmans were highly regarded by the community and employed many members of the Agua Caliente.

In 1914, Fanny Stevenson, widow of famed author Robert Louis Stevenson, spent some time at The Desert Inn and wrote a letter about it to an English friend, part of which reads: “There is, also, a climate of extraordinary purity and dryness, and almost no rain or wind. Wonderful cures of tuberculosis have taken place here; one of the former patients I know very well; he was considered a hopeless case, and is now perfectly well. If I had only known of Palm Springs in my Louis’ time! … I came here partly for asthma, and partly to recover from a bad attack of influenza. The influenza is gone; the asthma is nonexistent, but I plan to stay for another month.”

While Nellie’s husband was instrumental in the development of The Desert Inn as a sanatorium, it was Nellie’s foresight that turned it into a world-class resort. According to Marjorie Belle Bright in her 1981 book Nellie’s Boardinghouse, various little things eroded the Coffmans’ marriage, and they legally terminated it in 1917.

Harry was the first practicing physician in Palm Springs. He went on to practice medicine in Calexico and later had a ranch in Cherry Valley. He died in 1935 while treating patients in Alpine, San Diego County. He was buried in the Welwood Murray Cemetery.

Both of Nellie’s sons served in World War I, leaving Nellie to manage the hotel. She was aided by her double niece, “Pat” Helen Ruth Coffman (daughter of Nellie’s sister Edna, and Harry’s brother Edgar). One of Nellie’s great granddaughters, Kitty Kieley Hayes, reported, “Granny (Nellie) never forgot, and Pat received the first bequeathment from Granny’s estate.”

When the sons returned from the war, the family set up The Desert Inn in corporate form with Nellie as president, George as vice president, and Earl as secretary-treasurer.

Nellie with her sons Owen and George. Photo courtesy of the Palm Springs Historical Society

Los Angeles doctors began sending flu patients to The Desert Inn to escape contagion during the 1918 influenza epidemic, and not a single case was reported in Palm Springs. Still, by 1920, Nellie had stopped encouraging patients for respiratory and pulmonary ailments from coming. The tent houses were gradually replaced by comfortable wooden bungalows with screened porches.

Nellie borrowed money to expand and change the hotel. By 1928, with the help of architect Charles Tanner, the inn featured Mission Revival-style guesthouses amid a beautiful 35-acre garden. The new main building featured a large, inviting lobby, an intimate bar and an expansive porch. The first swimming pool in the desert, originally a reservoir, opened at The Desert Inn in the early 1920s. Guests were later offered golf privileges at the newly built O’Donnell Golf Course behind the property. The Palm Springs “season” revolved around the opening of The Desert Inn on Oct. 1, and its closing on May 1 each year.

A social director was hired, and the guest list reads like a who’s-who of the times. W.K. Kellogg, King Gillette, John Ford and film idol Rudolph Valentino were among the many early guests. UPS founder Jim Casey and his family were frequent visitors. J.C. Penney stayed there, as did the Heinz family; Mrs. Heinz passed out pins shaped like small pickles. Montie Montana actually rode his horse into the lobby and lassoed some of the guests. The only person allowed to bring his dog was Lee Duncan; the dog was Rin Tin Tin.

Nellie had high moral standards. A movie star once brought a female companion who was not his wife, and the pair was asked to leave. She expected her guests to dress fittingly for dinner in the De Anza Room, which featured candles, white linen and a string trio.

Nellie Coffman. Photo courtesy of the Palm Springs Historical Society

Nellie became involved in many community efforts. She served on the school board for more than 20 years. In 1939, a school opened that, against her protests, was named in her honor. She was a dynamo in helping those who were unfortunate, making sure that all of the people, regardless of their background or heritage, had food and blankets. She founded the Palm Springs Welfare and Friendly Aid, which eventually became the local United Way.

The cuisine at The Desert Inn became widely known and respected; Nellie was a good cook and liked to wear an apron and a large bonnet. She was sought after as a speaker and addressed many Southern California groups talking about “Hotel Keeping.” In a 1946 address, she commented, “When my time on Earth comes to a close, and I stand at the Pearly Gate, I’m going to ask the gatekeeper if I can start a boardinghouse in the sky.”

In recognition of their “Patron saint,” the city of Palm Springs threw an 80th birthday party for Nellie Coffman on Nov. 1, 1947. A caption in The Desert Sun noted: “Village Mother, Nellie Coffman, founder of The Desert Inn, acclaimed the mother of Palm Springs … will be honored on her 80th birthday tomorrow in the form of an old-fashioned picnic.”

Nellie died three years later, in 1950, and was buried in the Welwood Murray Cemetery. Earl, who died in 1967, and George, in 1968, are buried nearby.

Her sons sold The Desert Inn in 1955 to Marion Davies, who was long associated with William Randolph Hearst. It was later town down, with the Desert Fashion Plaza occupying the block on Palm Canyon Drive north of Tahquitz Canyon Way.

Sources for this article include personal input from Elizabeth Coffman Kieley, daughter of Owen Earl Coffman, and her daughter, Kitty Kieley Hayes, who also reviewed a version of this story in 2006. Others include Nellie’s Boardinghouse by Marjorie Belle Bright (ETC Publications, 1981); Palm Springs: First 100 Years by Mayor Frank M. Bogert (Palm Springs Heritage Associates, 1987); and The McCallum Saga: The Story of the Founding of Palm Springs, by Katherine Ainsworth, (Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1973).

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Greg Niemann

Greg Niemann is a Palm Springs-based author with five published books: Baja Fever (Mountain ’N’ Air), Baja Legends (Sunbelt Publications), Palm Springs Legends (Sunbelt), Big Brown: The Untold Story...

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1 Comment

  1. Great story, Greg. The history of Palm Springs (and the surrounding area) is so interesting and colorful. I’m a naturalist guide for Red Jeep Tours in Palm Desert and I really appreciate these stories so I can also pass along some of the history.

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