Vikingsholm: Lake Tahoe’s kingly castle
July 11, 2013
Nestled in tall pines on the edge of beautiful Emerald Bay on Lake Tahoe, Vikingsholm is a place fit for a king—or at least a knight.
In fact, the three-story house, built to resemble a Scandinavian castle, was the creation of Lora J. Knight, a wealthy Illinois woman who erected the imposing structure as her summer home.
Mrs. Knight was born Lora J. Small, the daughter of a successful corporation lawyer, who, in the 1880s married James H. Moore, one of her father’s partners.
Her husband and his business partners eventually earned their fortunes by gaining controlling interests in several major companies, including National Biscuit and the Union Pacific Railroad.
Moore died in 1916, leaving his wife a considerable estate that included property in Illinois, Wisconsin, California and at the north shore of Lake Tahoe.
In the 1920s, Lora married Harry French Knight, a St. Louis stockbroker but the union was not successful and they were divorced a few years later.
In 1928, Mrs. Knight purchased 239 acres at the head of Emerald Bay (for $250,000) and began planning her special summer hideaway. She hired Lennart Palme, a Swedish architect and her nephew, to design the house with a Scandinavian influence.
Following a trip to Scandinavia to gather ideas, Mrs. Knight authorized construction to begin in the summer of 1928. Work on the house ceased during the winter months but restarted the next spring. Amazingly, the house was completed by the end of the summer.
The house was constructed of locally cut wood (pine and fir) and using local granite boulders and rocks that were embedded in mortar. Interior walls were hand planed and accented with delicate, hand carvings.
The house has a wonderful handmade quality to it, which is not surprising since Mrs. Knight had 200 workers building the house. In fact, the exterior wood sections were hewn by Finnish carpenters who were brought in from New York.
One unusual feature was the sod roof covering the buildings lining the courtyard. Grass roofs were common on Scandinavian houses so Mrs. Knight incorporated the idea in her castle.
Mrs. Knight stayed at Vikingsholm for 15 summers, until her death in 1945. The estate was sold to a Nevada rancher, Lawrence Holland, who later sold it to Harvey West, a lumber magnate from Placerville.
In 1953, West agreed to donate half the appraised value of the land to the state of California in return for the state paying him the other half. The state was able to acquire most of the land surrounding Emerald Bay, including Vikingsholm for about $125,000 (half the appraised value).
Today, visitors can park in a lot just off State Route 89 and hike one mile to the former Lora J. Knight home. The walk is peaceful as you stroll through the pines, catching glimpses of breathtaking Emerald Bay below.
The tour is definitely worth the $8 charge ($5 for children). If possible, try to take a a tour with Dr. Helen H. Smith, who, as a child spent 14 consecutive summers as a guest at Vikingsholm. She has also written an excellent booklet about the house, which is available for sale.
Another of Mrs. Knight’s legacies can be seen on Fannette Island in the middle of Emerald Bay. At the crown of the island, she built a picturesque, stone teahouse.
Guided tours of Vikingsholm (the only way you can tour the house) are offered daily from Memorial Day weekend until the send of September. Tours are offered between 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. (although you can hike to the house to picnic on the grounds or explore the area throughout the year).
Vikingholm is located at the southwest end of Lake Tahoe, about 35 miles from Carson City via U.S. 50 and Route 89. For information, contact 530-525-9530 or http://www.vikingsholm.org.
Richard Moreno has a passion for Nevada, its towns and people.