For decades, Lake Tahoe’s magical pull has inspired many affluent families to build some of the nation’s grandest estates. Dating to the early 20th century, these historic landmarks provide an invaluable link to the region’s heritage as a coveted summer destination that continues to this day. Luckily through a combination of federal and state funding, nonprofits and private donations, they remain standing and preserved for future generations to use and discover. Set amid gorgeous, lakeside locales, these historic properties enchant thousands of visitors each year, just as they once restored and uplifted their original owners.
Hugging Lake Tahoe’s Nevada shoreline, Thunderbird Lodge is embedded in local history. George Whittell, Jr., heir to his San Francisco family’s fortune, planned to develop a ski resort and casino and died a conversationist instead when he had a change of heart about this special place. A portion of his land was donated to the U.S. Forest Service, while his Frederic J. DeLongchamps-designed estate from the 1930s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places fell under the care of the nonprofit Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society.
Chief executive and curator Bill Watson likes to remind people that private donations and ticket sales from visitors like you solely fund its upkeep and other projects. Property tours, which include Whittell’s famous custom Hacker speedboat and the tunnel to its boathouse, have been slightly altered this summer. Concessionaire partners are Cruise Tahoe, which operates daily boat tours from Tuesday through Saturday, and Tahoe Adventure Company, whose weekly kayak tours depart Sand Harbor on Tuesdays. Both include a boxed lunch. Incline Village and Crystal Bay Visitors Bureau paused its shuttle bus tours until 2022. In the meantime, it’s organizing extended tours with a wine and cheese reception on Tuesdays and Fridays for small groups that take their own transportation. Thunderbird also offers two levels of private tours for charitable contributions of $1,500 and $2,500.
The nonprofit made the most of the shutdown; there’s a lot of work leading up to the launch of its Lake Tahoe Discovery Museum and Event Center in Incline Village by 2023.
“Tahoe’s heritage is a wonderful intersection of mining, logging, railroads, casinos, ski resorts and environmental conservation, yet we didn’t have an art and history museum to share it with public,” said Watson, who regularly receives donations of Tahoe-related family heirlooms, as well as collections from shuttered, regional institutions like the Tahoe Maritime Museum for safekeeping. “We’re like Tahoe’s family attic. People trust us to ensure their treasures like an antique sawmill blade or an old photo of Tahoe when it was stripped of trees will survive to educate future generations.”
The tradition began when Whittell inherited a cache of artifacts from his purchase of 45,000 acres and their structures. Watson said Thunderbird possesses the largest collection of photos, maps and films, among myriad items pertaining to Tahoe’s history, which will be catalogued online (laketahoehistory.org) for everyone to access. “It will be the region’s first digital museum,” he said.
The 74-acre Valhalla Tahoe historic site is popular for weddings and summer entertainment but there’s more to this venue than a good time. Events provide an imperative revenue stream to support preservation and restoration efforts at the Scandinavian-influenced estate once owned by the Heller family and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Hellers plucked the name from Norse mythology, specifically the Vikings’ concept of heaven, and the lakeside enclave’s homage doesn’t disappoint.
“It’s like a romantic, rustic village,” said operations and sales manager Michelle Morton, of the moment it clicks with betrothed couples. “Besides the lake, they fall in love with the old growth trees and the barn-style architecture.”’
One of the perks of her job is hearing all the stories from descendants of the families that called it home and the random assortment of visitors who trickle through each year. More people have been able to create memories here, since the U.S. Forest Service took ownership of Valhalla decades ago and folded it into the Tallac Historic Site along with the Pope-Baldwin houses.
“We feel very fortunate because our forest service partnership allows our nonprofit to reinvest its profits back into the property,” said Morton, whose recent improvements range from residing a cabin to going paperless for the environment to replacing broken windowpanes, a casualty of rampant bear activity. “We’re also transforming a cabin into a local art gallery that should be ready next year.”
Besides being back in business for weddings and its summer performance series, house tours will resume offering a glimpse into the opulent lifestyle once enjoyed at this historic South Lake Tahoe getaway. Tours will most likely be scheduled in mornings to free up the Grand Hall for afternoon events. The striking room has a sense of place through its vaulted ceiling with wooden beams and cavernous, arched hearth constructed from hefty river rocks. Morton estimates the hearth measures 30 feet high. Situated behind it on the second floor, the former children’s bedrooms are connected to the master suite by catwalks.
“What’s incredible to think is that any building materials that weren’t found locally had to be shipped to Truckee by train and across the lake by boat,” she said.
*For more about Valhalla Tahoe’s summer performance series, please see our culture feature on page 13.
More than Lora Knight’s summer home on Emerald Bay, Vikingsholm was her passion project. The wealthy widow and divorcee commissioned her nephew, a Swedish architect, and together they took off in the summer of 1928 to travel Scandinavia extensively for ideas. Their meticulous research, collecting and replication of its architecture, design and culture resulted in a superb pastiche of Scandinavian life.
“Vikingsholm is unique because it combines building methods and materials from different socioeconomic levels of Scandinavia,” said retired state parks ranger John Harbison, of the national and state landmark that’s part of Emerald Bay State Park. “She borrowed humble farmhouses’ sod roofs and castles’ stone and timber construction, plus elements of other buildings found throughout these countries like Norway’s medieval stave churches.”
Vikingsholm’s museum exhibits photographs and other documents that depict her process. Tours, which are managed by the Sierra State Parks Foundation, reopened with limited capacity and access (visitors may not be able to tour the second level).
Natalie Davenport, a curator for California State Parks’ Sierra district, said it’s also unusual for a historic estate to be so intact. She estimates more than 90 percent of the home’s architecture, interiors, furnishings and other objects are original. She marvels at Knight’s dedication to detail, too.
“She acquired fine antiquities dating back to the Middle Ages, or had them authentically replicated when she wasn’t able to purchase them,” said Davenport, a commitment that extended to construction. “She recruited builders and craftsmen who had apprenticed on Scandinavian farms, and you see their input like for a writing nook that juts out from the house—it’s held together by wooden pegs, the traditional way in Scandinavia, instead of nails or screws.”
There’s so much architecture and history to study, but people visit for more than the estate.
“Some simply want to walk down to Emerald Bay and enjoy the views or check out the waterfalls,” said Harbison.
Named after a San Francisco business mogul and his daughter, the Hellman-Ehrman mansion and its nearly 2,000 acres in Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park were acquired by the California State Park System in the Sixties. Walter Danforth Bliss designed the family’s vacation getaway, now a national and state landmark, with all the modern conveniences available at the turn of the century.
“The main house has 11 bathrooms with indoor plumbing, which was a real luxury in 1903 when most people still used outhouses,” said tour guide Lindsay Harbison. “They also had electricity, first powered by steam generators, and then commercial power starting in the late Twenties.”
The generator building serves as the visitor’s center now. It’s among a large assortment of outbuildings that remains. They include an ice house, coach house, water tower, pump house and two boathouses, as well as separate residences for servants and the Hellman-Ehrman family’s growing brood. Harbison said it’s extremely rare around Tahoe for these structures to survive after all these years.
“It’s the only estate left in the basin with its original outbuildings, so you really get to experience what it was like to live here, whether doing one of the many summertime activities or just relaxing on the porch and enjoying the view of the lake,” she said, of her mission to transport visitors back in time. “I also talk about what they ate and what they wore.”
Unlike Vikingsholm, much of the Hellman-Ehrman mansion’s original furnishings have disappeared over the years. They’ve been replaced with reproductions and pieces dating to the same period. Restorations are also faithful to the family’s original décor, such as the color of the living room. The Sierra State Parks Foundation recently refurbished its shingle roof and garden, too. The foundation hopes to restart tours this summer.