By Claudia Newcorn
Considered one of the finest examples of Scandinavian architecture in the Western Hemisphere, Vikingsholm Castle, nestled along the Emerald Bay shore, is one of Lake Tahoe’s hidden gems.
From Fjords to Tahoe
Welcome to Vikingsholm State Park. Against a backdrop of sharp-edged granite mountains, surrounded by surviving old-growth redwoods, the Castle’s mellowed stone glows in sunlight reflected off Emerald Bay’s shimmering waters.
But why a Viking’s castle? The year was 1928. Mrs. Lora Knight paid $250,000 for 239 acres encompassing the head of Emerald Bay and Fannette Island to create a summer retreat with breathtaking views. It was the height of ‘period revival’ architecture, when the wealthy elite designed homes replicating English Tudor mansions or medieval French castles to showcase their connections to Europe’s heritage and culture.
Emerald Bay’s setting reminded Mrs. Knight of Norway’s fjords, and she decided on Scandinavian architecture. Then she and her architect, Lennart Palme, traveled throughout Scandinavia. They collected ideas and antiques for her dream home that Palme would design based on structures dating as far back as the 11th century.
If Mrs. Knight could not purchase a desired piece, Palme would create detailed sketches so it could be recreated down to the last scratch or dent. Their goal was to capture as much authenticity as possible, including construction methods. Two hundred workers hand-split timbers, hand-planed wood, and carved and painted intricate details and designs. Hinges and latches were forged on site. Most materials came from the Tahoe basin.
Walking Among Dragons
It’s worth taking the paid docent-led tour through the two-story mansion to marvel at Mrs. Knight’s imagination. The downstairs rooms are the most elaborate, featuring pieces from the 17th century. The ceiling design, copied from a Swedish church, is made from sugar pine treated with banana oil. Here is where you can commence your search for the 72 hand-carved dragons scattered throughout, believed by Vikings to serve as guardians who chased away evil spirits.
Take your time to enjoy the myriad details, such as the $40,000 cashmere rug in the library; that’s in 1929 dollars! Each of the six ornate fireplaces is unique. Climb the stairs to gaze into meticulously maintained guest rooms that appear to be waiting for such famous people as actor Will Rogers and aviator Charles Lindbergh, whom Mrs. Knight sponsored on his 1927 non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic. The rooms’ furnishings were reproduced from Palme’s drawings of 18th and 19th century museum pieces. Even the servants’ quarters are an intriguing insight into the past, with their “modern” appliances.
Behind the main house is the fortress-like horseshoe-shaped courtyard. Insulating sod roofs cover the north and south wings. Mrs. Knight planted them with wildflowers she would gather for the many bouquets she enjoyed placing throughout her home. Check out the amazing 1936 Dodge Brothers Cruiser in the garage. Our docent pointed out the Star of David emblem on the car, explaining that the Jewish brothers ceased using it after World War II began.
A gracious host, Mrs. Knight also treated her staff with respect, which they reciprocated. She kept two of every servant to ensure all could receive time off. She established college scholarships for staff children to attend Oakland’s Mills College, considering it her duty to serve as a role model for the young men and women. In her will, she arranged that every servant receive a severance pay of $1000 for each year of service.
In 1945, on the first night she arrived at her beloved Vikingsholm, Mrs. Knight passed away in her sleep. The property changed hands twice and then was sold to the state in 1946 for $125,000. In 1969, Emerald Bay was designated a National Natural Landmark; in 1994, it also became an underwater state park, showcasing the many sunken boats from Tahoe’s early days.
Situated along scenic Highway 89 about 30 minutes north of South Lake Tahoe, the state park features a pleasant beach ideal for picnics and swimming, as well as a variety of day hikes. It’s a popular destination for boaters with a Boat-In Campground located on Emerald Bay’s north shore.
Note that parking can be challenging; arrive early. While there is a parking lot just off Highway 89, it fills rapidly, and visitors end up parking on the highway sides (helpful hint: don’t cross the road’s white edge line or you may be ticketed).
From the highway, the trail drops 500 feet to the house. For those with a valid ADA card, the park will make special arrangements so that visitors can drive down to the mansion; these need to be to be made in advance. Tours run from the end of May through end of September. For park info: www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=506.