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Grand Estates of Tahoe

August 24, 1986|LORAINE JUVELIN | Juvelin is a Mesa, Ariz., free-lance writer. and

TAHOE CITY, Calif. — If you are speaking of life style, there are light years of distance between the Lake Tahoe region of today and yesterday.

In the early part of this century, recreation at the lake was the almost exclusive domain of California's Bay Area tycoons. They acquired vast lake-shore holdings on which they built huge summer homes. There, with the help of huge staffs of servants, they entertained in sumptuous style an almost continuous stream of summer house guests.

With the change in the times and economy, however, many of these estates were sold to the state park system and the U.S. Forest Service. Held in public trust, they represent some of the last large tracts of unsubdivided land along the shores of the spectacular mountain lake.

Available for Touring

For a nominal fee the governmental agencies offer tours during summer through a handful of these handsome old summer dwellings. With tour guides dressed in turn-of-the-century fashion, the visitor is treated to a brief glimpse of a gracious way of life now past. At any time of the year you also can stroll through the surrounding gardens, and picnic or swim at the sandy beaches.

Five of these summer "cottages" are within a few miles of each other just off California 89. Three are at Tallac Historic Site (the Pope estate, Valhalla and the McGonagle-Lucky Baldwin estate), while Ehrman Mansion is at Sugar Pine Point State Park and Vikingsholm at Emerald Bay.

Most of the mansions have been restored and refurbished to look much as they did in their heyday. Some are still in the process. But a tour through any or all of them can be planned as a family outing with almost sure-fire appeal to all age groups.

Vikingsholm is, perhaps, the finest example. It is also the only one of the five that was not owned by a wealthy Bay Area businessman. Its owner, Lora Knight, had winter homes in Santa Barbara and Reno.

A Mile Hike

For the one-mile trek from the highway down to the mansion door I wore comfortable shoes. I was glad I did for, though it may be only a mile down, it seems more like four on your way back up. Still, along the way you can stop to rest at many pleasant pine- and willow-shaded areas where miniature waterfalls are surrounded by clusters of ferns and wildflowers.

Coming and going, I found fabulous vantage points to view Vikingsholm's stunning setting, right on the shore of the best-known and most-photographed stretch of Lake Tahoe. This is where the cobalt blue waters of Emerald Bay cut, like a fiord, back into the mountain walls.

In the middle of the splendid scenery, as if nature needed this final touch, is the tiny island of Fannette. The resemblance to Norwegian fiords, I learned later, was the owner's inspiration for building a mansion here in Scandinavian tradition.

Our tour guide was especially well qualified, a woman who, as a child, had spent many summers at this rustic summer home designed in the manner of an 11th-Century Norse castle. Her memories of the days spent as a guest of Knight added warmth and a human dimension to the rather stiffly formal atmosphere.

Vikingsholm is said to be the finest example of Scandinavian architecture in the United States. During the spring of 1929, carpenters and artisans hand-planed wallboards, hewed timbers and hand-forged metal fixtures. Wherever possible, local materials were used because Knight wanted her home to be compatible with the environment.

Furnished With Antiques

Almost all the homes are elegantly furnished with antiques. In Vikingsholm, for instance, there are copies of Scandinavian museum pieces. Delicate paintings are on the ceiling of the living room, and the walls and ceilings of the library and morning room resemble painting found in Scandinavian peasant homes.

Knight enjoyed adding touches that reflected medieval attitudes and superstitions. Two intricately carved dragon beams that hang from the living room ceiling designate the area reserved in earlier times for the chieftain and his guests. The outer and out-of-the-limelight section is relegated to women and children. Knight, I was happy to learn, made no such distinctions.

Most of the homes contain rare examples of handcrafted fine woods and samplings of imported crafts. The fireplace tiles in the Ehrman home, for example, were handmade and imported from Holland.

The mistress of the house usually made frequent use of tea houses, gazebos and arboretums to enhance the grandeur of the setting. The home's morning rooms and game rooms assured space for guests to read or play games.

Knight occasionally took guests by boat to Fannette Island, which she also owned. Servants were on hand ready to assist guests up steep, rocky paths to the castle-style teahouse on the island's pinnacle.

An Unhurried Atmosphere

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