One aspect of Idyllwild that helps maintain its small-village charm is the way commercial and residential activities get intermingled through both space and time. Upper North Circle Drive offers a good example.
Just across the street from ever-busy Café Aroma, stands dense forest surrounding two obviously old buildings. As Idyllwild’s first construction boom gained momentum in the early 1920s, Claudius Emerson sold the land to Arabella Bell of Pasadena. She and her husband, a professional botanist, were drawn to this forested property on Strawberry Creek, next to a 2-acre creekside strip designated as a “playground” (“campground” in today’s jargon).
The Bells built the two structures (and a pump house for their well) in 1922 and 1924. The building nearer the street was their carriage house, the more distant one a summer residence. The carriage house was designed so that a one-way driveway from North Circle curved into the building, which served as an automobile garage, then exited through a second door, eventually merging with the street a few doors down.
Dr. Bell set about converting the entire creekside property to shaded gardens crisscrossed with paths and filled with plants gathered worldwide. Frank Strong and George Dickinson were simultaneously opening their Fern Valley development just upstream, so the Bells adopted the name “Fern Valley Gardens,” which would prevail for 65 years.
As the Bells aged, they hired Lloyd Wood, later Idyllwild’s postmaster, as caretaker. Arabella died in the early 1960s, leaving the property to the “City of Idyllwild,” a nonexistent entity. Local sculptor Lora Steere, a moving spirit in creating the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, prevailed upon Bell’s executor to interpret “City of Idyllwild” broadly enough for ISOMATA to receive the property.
ISOMATA board member Ann Benedict, in turn, bought Fern Valley Gardens to benefit the school and to preserve the property. Privately christened “Timberlite” for the unique lighting afforded by its overhanging forest, it became a second home for her. But eventually the gardens went untended and vegetation overgrew the trail network.
Serial owners subsequently commercialized Fern Valley Gardens, housing arts and crafts shops, before Mitchell Susnar sparked its renaissance in 1987. Restoring the gardens to award-winning quality, he meticulously remodeled both buildings, recycling original pine boards from the 1920s construction. The project suffered a tense moment when workers excavating the basement detected a foul odor — a prior owner had been murdered, after all — but its source proved to be merely a freshly expired raccoon.
Susnar also bestowed a new name, “The Epicurean,” taken from his Florida restaurant, upon the resulting wine, cheese and household furnishings emporium. That shop’s short but illustrious life ended in 1990. Temporarily housing a bookstore, the place was bought by Charles and Kirsten Marvin. They reopened The Epicurean as an eclectic gourmet foods, decorative arts and apparel shop that lasted through the 1990s.
After the Marvins sold it, the property sat idle until 2010, when it acquired yet another identity, now occupied full-time as the private residence of well-known locals Barnaby and Anne Finch.