California rambling: The good life

By From page A4 | September 30, 2013

Each of us owns a little piece of the good life. Visit Ed Z’Berg Sugar Pine Point State Park along the west shore of Lake Tahoe and you’ll experience it.

There, among the ponderosa and sugar pines is Pine Lodge, the Hellman-Ehrman Mansion. It was a summer retreat begun in 1897 by San Francisco banker and businessman I. W. Hellman.

At the time of its completion in 1903, the craftsman mansion was considered to be one of the finest in the High Sierra. It was equipped with the most modern utilities, electric lights and indoor plumbing. Each evening, its guests would sit sipping cocktails on the mansion’s porch, as they watched the alpenglow color the eastern horizon pink.

That same experience is open to any of us. Just visit Sugar Pine Point State Park and the mansion’s wicker porch chairs are there to enjoy, just as the Hellmans, Erhmans and their wealthy friends did … just bring your own drinks.

Visiting Lake Tahoe was only available to the wealthy in the early 1900s. The lake’s remoteness and limited opportunities to vacation kept people of average means from visiting the lake. It was then mostly a private playground.

Eventually, such private enclaves were obtained for public use. Public tours are provided of Pine Lodge at Ed Z’Berg Sugar Pine Point State Park, of Vikingsholm at Emerald Bay State Park and of the privately operated Thunderbird Lodge along Tahoe’s east shore in Nevada.

Touring these venerable vacation homes provides vicarious admission to the once-private residences of the rich and famous. When Pine Lodge was acquired by the State of California, the counter-cultural trends of the late 1960s influenced state park planners. They absorbed the cultural objection to preserving a tycoon’s mansion and planned to tear down the mansion’s buildings, converting the estate into a campground.

Local preservationists were successful in saving Pine Lodge from destruction, though its original furnishings had, by then, been sold. Still, the mansion’s interiors remained preserved as they appeared when the home was occupied, and care has been taken to refurnish rooms with similar furniture. In comparison to today’s refined style, the resort furnishings of that era seem simple and out of place in the mountains.

Tours begin on the porch, then move inside, with glimpses into the living room, dining room, bedrooms, servant’s quarters and kitchen. Along the way, the guide points out impressive aspects of the building’s interior, such as a wall covering in the dining room made of woven strips of redwood that still shine in satin beauty, as if they’d just been revealed.

At Thunderbird Lodge, docent-guided tours take visitors on an hour and 15 minute walk through the fairytale-like stone mansion and its grounds while describing the enigmatic life of its owner, George Whittell Jr. Visitors tour the Lighthouse Room, Old Lodge, servant’s quarters and original kitchen, as well as a 600-foot underground tunnel leading to the cavernous boathouse.

In the boathouse resides the legendary wooden speedboat, Thunderbird. It was built for Whittell in 1939, and was later powered by twin Allison V12 1150 horsepower engines taken from WWII fighter aircraft. The boat still operates and is available for private charter. A walk along the serpentine Dragon’s Tail path leads to the Card House where tales of poker games are retold.

The most picture-perfect retreat at Lake Tahoe is Vikingsholm, a 38-room mansion at the end of Emerald Bay. This traditional Scandinavian building was completed in 1929 by heiress Lora Josephine Knight. Knight lived there each summer until 1945.

Most of Vikingsholm was made from materials found at Lake Tahoe. California State Parks reports that trees were cut for their size and lack of knots, and the granite for the foundation and walls was quarried from behind the house. The ideas for the construction came from buildings dating as far back as the 11th century. Some sections of the home contain no nails, pegs or spikes.

One of the interesting architectural designs is the sod roof which covers both the north and south wings of the complex. The interior of the home has paintings on some of the ceilings and walls and two intricately carved dragon beams. The six fireplaces are of Scandinavian design with unusual fireplace screens.

Most of the home’s furnishings were selected by Knight and reflect typical pieces used in Scandinavian homes of the period. A number of original antiques were purchased and others were reproduced to exact detail, even to the aging of the wood and duplication of scratches.

The furnishings on the second floor were reproduced from the architects drawings of 18th and 19th century museum pieces. A step into Vikingsholm is like a step back into medieval times and a chance to gain an appreciation of a unique style of architecture and the person who had it built.

Tours of Vikingsholm Castle, Thunderbird Lodge and Pine Lodge are offered daily from the Memorial Day weekend to the end of September. Thunderbird Lodge tours continue to be provided until mid October.

John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.

John Poimiroo

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