It’s no big surprise that extremely wealthy people have lives that most folks will never have an opportunity to experience.
This was certainly true in the late 19th and early 20th century, when many of America’s richest people often built sprawling estates in enclaves such as Long Island’s Gold Coast in New York, Newport, Rhode Island and, in the case of some of California’s wealthiest denizens, Lake Tahoe’s Tallac district.
The homes—really elaborate summer cottages—at what is now called the Tallac Historic Site were built in the late 19th and early 20th century by some of America’s wealthiest individuals. At one time, the site was also the location of Tahoe’s first casino-hotel.
While many of the structures have disappeared over the years—victims of neglect and progress—a few have been preserved and are now managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
The Tallac Historic Site is located on Route 89, north of Camp Richardson. A wonderfully scenic two-and-a-half-mile-long bicycle and hiking path winds through the area.
Riding through the historic grounds is an opportunity to pretend that you’ve gone back to a time before automobiles and airplanes, when only the super-rich could afford to build seasonal homes in a once remote place, such as Lake Tahoe.
The setting is remarkably peaceful and very beautiful. The trail is lined with tall pine trees filled with chattering birds and, as you ride along, provides glimpses of the clear, blue waters of the lake.
While the main path is paved, there are several dirt tributaries that snake through the reserve and lead to small, hidden beaches or particularly scenic tree groves.
Development of the Tallac area started in the 1870s, when Yank Clement opened the Tallac Point House on the south shore to accommodate visitors. “Yank’s” inn also offered steamboat rides, a saloon and dancing.
In 1880, “Yank’s” was sold to Elias “Lucky” Baldwin, a California entrepreneur and professional gambler. Baldwin transformed the sleepy lakeside inn into a 250-room resort that included a casino, ballroom, four bowling alleys, sun parlors and billiards rooms.
Meanwhile, in 1894, George Tallant, son of one of the founders of California’s Crocker Bank, built a rustic summer lodge adjacent to the Baldwin estate.
Five years later, Tallant’s sold his property to millionaire Lloyd Tevis, who expanded and renovated the home, making it the largest and most luxurious in the area. Tevis added servants quarters, a dairy, stables and a shaded, garden with Japanese tea house and arched bridges.
In 1923, Tevis sold the compound to George Pope Jr., a San Francisco lumber and shipping magnate. To reflect Pope’s ecumenical name, the estate was nicknamed the “Vatican Lodge.”
Also in 1923, another prominent businessman, Walter Heller purchased the land south of the Pope estate. Heller began construction of what would become the last great Tallac mansion, an impressive stone and wood lodge named “Valhalla.”
The early 1920s marked the heyday of the magnificent Tallac homes but was also the end of “Lucky” Baldwin’s resort. In 1920, Baldwin’s daughter, Anita, closed the casino-hotel and demolished the buildings.
Later that same year, Dextra Baldwin McGonagle, Baldwin’s granddaughter, constructed a beautiful single-story home on the family property.
All three are classic examples of the early 20th century “Tahoe” architecture, which utilized native stone and wood in order to blend with the pastoral surrounding.
The Tallac museum, located on the grounds of the former Baldwin estate, offering original furnishings, a small gift shop as well as changing art exhibits and an informative Washo tribe display (before the homes were built, the area was inhabited by the native Washo Indians).
The Washo exhibit includes a garden filled with various plants on which the tribe subsisted as well as examples of traditional Washo shelters, including a “galis daigal” or winter lodge made of bark and pine poles, and a “gadu” or summer home, built of sagebrush and branches.
The Pope estate is the largest of the three areas and includes the greatest number of surviving buildings. Volunteer efforts are ongoing to maintain and restore the historic structures.
Nearby Valhalla is perhaps the most impressive of the estates with its massive main hall that features a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace. The main house is used for special events, including the Tallac Arts and Music Festival, a series of weekly concerts held in the summer.
The 2,000-acre Tallac Historic Site also has picnic tables and several public beaches including Kiva Beach and Baldwin Beach.
The Tallac Museum is open between Memorial Day and the end of September. Tours of many of the buildings are also available. For more information, go to http://tahoeheritage.org/events-and-programs-2/tallac-historic-site/.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.