Vikingsholm: A visit to Tahoe’s Scandinavian castle
May 19, 2005
Vikingsholm easily could have been named “Asgard,” legendary home of the Viking gods.
Nestled in tall pines, this magnificent three-story house, which was built to resemble a Scandinavian castle, sits on the lip of beautiful Emerald Bay on Lake Tahoe – surely a place fit for Odin and his brethren.
While originally a private residence, Vikingsholm has been part of the California State Park system since 1953, and is open for tours during the summer months.
Vikingsholm was the creation of Lora J. Knight, a wealthy Illinois woman who decided to build the imposing structure as her summer home.
Knight was born Lora J. Small, the daughter of a successful corporation lawyer. In the 1880s, she married James H. Moore, one of her father’s partners.
Moore and his business partners eventually earned their fortunes by gaining controlling interests in several major companies, including National Biscuit and the Union Pacific Railroad.
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Moore died in 1916, leaving his wife a considerable estate that included property in Illinois, Wisconsin, California and the north shore of Tahoe.
In the 1920s, Small married Harry French Knight, a St. Louis stockbroker, but the union was not successful, and they were divorced a few years later.
In 1928, Lora Knight purchased 239 acres at the head of Emerald Bay (for $250,000) and began planning her special summer hideaway. She hired her nephew Lennart Palme, a Swedish architect, to design the house with a Scandinavian influence.
Following a trip to Scandinavia to gather ideas, Knight authorized construction to begin in summer 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), 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 handmade quality to it, which is not surprising since Knight had 200 workers building it. In fact, the exterior wood sections were hand-hewn by Finnish carpenters 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 Knight incorporated the idea in her castle.
Knight stayed at Vikingsholm for 15 summers, until her death in 1945. The estate was sold to 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 for the other half.
The state was able to acquire most of the land surrounding Emerald Bay, including Vikingsholm, for about $125,000 (half its appraised value).
Today, visitors can park on State Route 89 and hike one mile down 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 $5 charge. If possible, try to take tours offered by guide Helen H. Smith, who spent 14 consecutive summers as a child guest at Vikingsholm. She has written an excellent booklet about the house, which is sold at the end of the tour.
Another of 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.
n Richard Moreno is the author of “Backyard Travels in Northern Nevada” and “The Roadside History of Nevada.”