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Leaving L.A. behind for a small-town mountain retreat

Although Catherine and Michael Donovan weren't looking for a major life change, they always knew their lifestyle and hobbies would be amenable to places other than Los Angeles. "We were ranch people living in Silver Lake," Catherine jokes. The family owned a camper and had a Silver Streak trailer parked off-site in Pasadena. On weekends, "either we were estate sale-ing, or adventuring."

Their love of the outdoors and the consistent urging of their friends — Mohawk General Store owners Kevin and Bo Carney, who have a home in Idyllwild — finally brought them up to the creative town located in the San Jacinto Mountains. (The population numbers around 4,000 and the elevation is approximately 5,400 feet.)

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Just for fun, the Donovans went to look at an intriguing property located off Idyllwild’s main drag. They fell in love instantly with the two acres on Strawberry Creek and its two structures dating back to the early 1920s, as well as massive boulders left in situ that brimmed with local significance and charm. Catherine recalls thinking skeptically, "It's so epic, what's wrong with it?" since the listing was about a year old at that point.

The answer was nothing, other than the area's real estate idiosyncrasies, where the market caters to a mix of part-timers and full-time denizens. (The sellers reportedly wanted a bigger house in Idyllwild with less land.)

The Donovans’ sense of adventure, the lure of this particular home and setting, and a desire to raise their family in a smaller community that's closely integrated with nature led the Donovans to suddenly embrace a new lifestyle and milieu two years ago.

A previous owner conjoined the house's three levels, basement to attic, with a spiral staircase, seen at left.
A previous owner conjoined the house's three levels, basement to attic, with a spiral staircase, seen at left. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

It was a bold move, considering their kids were 2 and 5 years old at the time, and they lived in a prized Silver Lake school district.

"We went home and we had our house up for sale literally 10 days later," Catherine says. It took all of a week to sell, and by October the family was living in a town they hardly knew.

The delightfully quirky details and magical setting, however, made the decision easier. Plus Catherine's career as a freelance publicist and Michael's as a product and business development consultant gave them the flexibility to work remotely. Since acquiring the property, the Donovans have worked with local historians to trace and honor its history.

A Pasadena couple, Dr. Grant Bell and his wife, Arabella, had constructed the pine-log and wood-shingle-covered main residence and carriage house between 1922 and 1924 as a summer retreat. The surrounding land was transformed with river rock paths and plants to fuel the Bells’ amateur botany obsession: They planted more than 300 Humboldt lily specimens during their time on the property, and many still thrive.

The garage/carriage house, which is now listed on Airbnb as a vacation getaway, was designed to house a Packard and eventually adapted into a habitable space with a kitchen and bathroom. The Donovans also rent a 1955 Trail Chief trailer on-site through Airbnb and refer to the property as the Owl Pine.

Eames molded-fiberglass chairs occupy the dining area. A butcher-block counter came from artist Pauline Annon's former home in Silver Lake.
Eames molded-fiberglass chairs occupy the dining area. A butcher-block counter came from artist Pauline Annon's former home in Silver Lake. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Because the parcel is zoned for both residential and commercial use, the house had a brief stint during the late 1980s as a gourmet and home goods shop called the Epicurean. That owner, Mitch Susnar, restored areas that had fallen into disrepair during the course of various ownership changes and lapsed maintenance.

Susnar conjoined the house's three levels from the basement to the attic with a spiral staircase. He also installed wide-plank wood floors and kitchen cabinetry and added straw-lined walls, as well as integrating pine logs into the walls and ceilings as part of that remodel. Today, these unusual details feel well suited for this free-spirited mountain community.

As for the Donovans' decorating process, "we had everything, and we plugged it into this house," Michael says. Their vintage Hans Wegner rocker seamlessly transitioned from their former contemporary Silver Lake loft to the mountain house. An L-shaped Case Study sectional sofa that faces a massive, granite rock-covered fireplace with a distinctive ax-carved mantle, and Eames molded fiberglass chairs in the kitchen's dining area are from past Modernica warehouse sales. And, yes, there are antlers on display.

The new home helped justify the couple's longtime secondhand shopping habits too. A perforated pendant light in a small seating area next to the staircase and a tall, rustic, vintage wood- and glass-front storage unit that functions as the kitchen pantry and storage, for instance, were sale finds. The kitchen butcher-block counter came from artist Pauline Annon's erstwhile home in Silver Lake, along with some of her original paintings.

Upstairs, the children's room
Upstairs, the children's room (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

In other parts of the house, the space itself is the main feature; the attic overlooking the forested landscape makes for a cozy kids' bedroom and play space that breeds imagination.

Michael, a passionate home cook, was particularly excited about the AGA porcelain-coated cast iron oven range. When he saw the rare appliance he thought, "OK, we can live here."

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They miss some perks of city life and circle back to L.A. when necessary, but the Donovans' new rituals include creek explorations and nightly soaks in a cedar hot tub on the deck, which Michael purchased secondhand in Malibu. "It's an interesting trade-off," Catherine says of the kids' experience. "Now they know every tree out here, what animals live here, and what's blooming."

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