In a place that changes as slowly as Idyllwild, what’s new about a New Year? Seven years ago it was the imminent opening of our newest commercial development, the Village Centre shops at the corner of North Circle and Village Center drives.
New? In fact, this complex was built on just about the oldest commercial site in Strawberry Valley. Its gently sloped terrain, well watered and shaded, attracted Idyllwild founder George Hannahs to this spot in 1890 for his Camp Idylwilde facilities.
But we can trace its commercial roots back farther, to the huge 1871 land grant awarded by the U.S. Congress to the Southern Pacific Railroad. The railroad’s prize for promising to build a transcontinental railway east from Southern California, potentially populating the area recently won from Mexico along the nation’s new southern border, was half the land surrounding its right-of-way for miles on either side.
After 1871 the railroad owned what would become central Idyllwild north of Strawberry Plaza and Silver Pines Lodge, from County Park Road all the way east to Lodge Road in Fern Valley. Another section took in all the lower valley between Idyllwild School and Camp Emerson.
Loggers then bought up large tracts of railroad land, until the San Jacinto Forest Reserve was created in 1897, and unsold land was traded back to the federal government. After San Diego County opened the primitive wagon road from Hemet to the public toll-free in 1888, tiny tourist enterprises sprang up, among them Camp Idylwilde, which Hannahs bought from local logging baron Anton Scherman.
In 1895 Hannahs sold the camp property, then Walter Lindley came along in 1899 and bought it up to build his Idyllwild Sanatorium. Predictably, the sanatorium, that strange hybrid of hotel and TB hospital — I can’t help asking “What was Lindley thinking?” — was a commercial failure. Within two years it was converted wholly to a hotel, the Strawberry Valley Lodge, which operated only for a summer before burning down during the off-season. Lindley chose to rebuild on a neighboring site, and for the next 40 years the land that had housed the landmarks Camp Idylwilde and Idyllwild Sanatorium sat vacant.
Another major fire, the 1945 blaze that consumed Lindley’s Idyllwild Inn, brought commercial development back to the original site. Then-owner Paul Foster, like Lindley before him, immediately rebuilt, returning to the sanatorium site for his new “Foster’s Idyllwild Inn.”
The new inn opened just in time to celebrate New Year 1946, but within a month Foster sold it to a local syndicate headed by Jerry Johnson. Before summer arrived, Johnson’s group in turn sold it to their resident manager, Bud Funk, and that fall Funk sold the property, now named Idyllwild Mountain Inn, establishing a pattern that would never end.
In 1950 the Idyllwild Arts Foundation bought it for a conference center, but gave up after a year. Despite brief celebrity as a set for scenes in Elvis Presley’s 1961 film, “Kid Galahad,” the Idyllwild Mountain Inn never really
caught on with tourists. Nothing really could save the white elephant, which descended finally to housing a consignment mall. By the time San Diego Savings & Loan tore the main building down in 1976, it had exhausted 11 different owners.
The land then lay vacant for quarter-century, until locals Pete Capparelli and Vic Sirkin bought it from the bank. Helpful Idyllwild residents proposed all manner of uses — parking garage, public restrooms, RV park, miniature golf course —but in the end a commercial center appropriate to Idyllwild seemed most feasible. When the project languished, “retired” developer Kevin Underdahl came along, bought the property, and built the Village Centre.
And so, shortly after New Year’s Day 2005, the curtain rose on a fourth act for this appealing site in the heart of Idyllwild.