Today, you can glimpse what life might have been like at Lake Tahoe a century ago by visiting three summer estates and the remains of the lavish Tallac Resort at the Tallac Historic Site on the lake’s south shore. The site, which is the only historic district managed by the U. S. Forest Service, consists of 150 acres with 28 structures dating from 1884 to 1923.
Ephraim (Yank) Clement built the Tallac Point House, a rustic but comfortable hostelry on the property and sold it in 1880 to Elias J. (Lucky) Baldwin, who amassed a fortune from mining, real estate, and other businesses in San Francisco and later in Southern California. Baldwin expanded the Point House into the luxurious Tallac Resort with an opulent ballroom, recreational attractions such as tennis, croquet and steamboat rides, and a casino that was described at the time as “The Greatest Casino in America and the Marvel of the Century.”
The resort survived until the late 1920s, when it was demolished by Baldwin’s daughter. Today, visitors can walk along the resort’s old promenade, see the foundation where the casino stood, and tour three estates.
The oldest, largest and most luxurious of the group is the Pope Estate. The main house was built in 1894 by banker George Payne Tallant and is an excellent example of the fine architectural detail and craftsmanship found in many turn-of-the century homes. Large porches and massive masonry fireplaces give a feeling of warmth and comfort.
In 1899, the residence and property passed to Lloyd Tevis. Tevis and his son, William, built most of the buildings currently on the site and developed an arboretum with a waterfall, ponds and beautiful trees and plants.
Due to financial difficulties, the property reverted to a bank in 1921 and was purchased by George S. Pope, who made his fortune in lumber and shipping. Pope’s wife played a prominent role in sponsoring the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition and the 1939 World’s Fair in San Francisco. Although the Popes changed very little of the physical aspects of the estate, it did become known as the Vatican Lodge, a reference to their surname. Today the Pope Estate houses the interpretive center for the site and offers historic tours, art exhibits and demonstrations, and a living history program during the summer months.
The Baldwin Estate, roughly 3,700 square feet, was built in 1921 by Lucky Baldwin’s granddaughter. The U-shaped home is Scandinavian in style with stripped cedar walls and a log exterior. It now houses an educational museum, with one room devoted to the Native American Washoe tribe, who were the first visitors to the Lake Tahoe basin. It also features a unique gift shop in the two-story living room, which has a full-height fireplace fashioned from local stone.
The Heller Estate, also known as Valhalla, was built in 1923. Walter Heller and his family had been frequent guests at the Tallac Resort and he wished to continue enjoying the area, so purchased an unimproved portion of the Pope property. The Heller House is representative of an early California architectural style, with a shingled roof and generous verandas with beautiful view of Lake Tahoe. The most impressive aspect of Valhalla is the grand hall, with beautiful wood floors and a stone fireplace reaching to the 20-foot-high ceiling. The property is now used for community events, and the Valhalla boathouse has been turned into a community theater.
The Tahoe Heritage Foundation and the Tahoe Tallac Association work with the Forest Service in maintaining facilities and providing programs at the Tallac Historic Site.
A variety of programs are offered, including activities for children. “Kitchen Kids,” for example, is a program that teaches youngsters about the workings of a 1920s kitchen. The Tahoe Heritage Foundations sponsors the Great Gatsby Festival the second weekend in August, recreating the 1920s with antique cars, wandering musicians and jugglers, and volunteers dressed in costumes from that era.
Situated near the Tallac Historic Site is the Forest Service’s Taylor Creek Visitor Center, which provides special programs and exhibits during the summer. A trail connects the center with the Tallac Historic Site. Another trail leads to Taylor Creek and the Stream Profile Chamber, which has floor-to-ceiling glass windows, a waterfall, a creek-like floor and sound effects that allow visitors to experience the creek’s environment without getting wet. Another trail leads from the visitor center to Lake Tahoe’s shoreline, interpretive displays, and a wildlife viewing deck overlooking Taylor Marsh.
The Tallac Historic Site will be open weekends from Memorial Day through June 10 and then daily until September 15. The grounds are open from dawn to dusk.
For information, contact the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, 870 Emerald Bay Rd., South Lake Tahoe, CA. 96150. Visit www.fs.fed.us/r5/ltbmu/recreation/tallac or call (530) 541-5227. The Tahoe Heritage Foundation Web site is at www.tahoeheritage.org. The Tahoe Tallac Association Web site is at www.valhalla-tallac.com.
Barbara Oliver is a writer who lives in Grand Junction, Colorado.