Located in El Dorado County, California near the shore of Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay, Vikingsholm is a 38-room mansion listed on the National Register of Historic Places, open to the public as a living history museum offering guided tours. Throughout the mid-19th century, Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay became a prominent site for summer homes for California’s early business and civic leaders, beginning with the construction of a seasonal residence overlooking the bay for stagecoach magnate Ben Holiday in the 1860s.
The home and its surrounding land were sold in 1880 to Paul Kirby, who constructed a number of resort cabins on the property for public rental, which were sold to William Henry Armstrong in 1892 for personal use. Armstrong’s land was purchased by Lora Josephine Knight in 1928 at a sum of $250,000 with the intent of creating a grand summer home residence that would reflect the area’s natural beauty.
Knight, a prominent philanthropist and backer of Charles Lindbergh’s historic 1927 transatlantic flight, was inspired by her frequent European travels and selected the bay for her construction site due to its resemblance to Scandinavia’s fjords. The home was intended to replace Knight’s former summer home, Wychwood, which had been located on the lake’s North Shore at Observatory Point. Knight’s nephew, Lennart Palme, served as the architect for the summer home project, which broke ground in 1928 and was completed the following year by a team of 200 workers. Palme’s design for the mansion faithfully followed the historic architecture of a number of well-known Swedish castles and Norwegian churches, which were studied carefully by Knight and Palme during a 1928 summer planning trip.
Nearly all of the building was constructed from materials gathered near the Lake Tahoe area, with much of the building’s construction utilizing traditional Scandinavian construction methods that did not use nails or spikes. All the building’s timbers were hand-hewn and all metal work was hand-forged, with the home’s intricate wood carving detail created custom by hand. Following the project’s completion, Knight vacationed at the home for 15 summers until her death in 1945, when the estate was sold to rancher Lawrence Holland and later to lumberman Harvey West. West negotiated an agreement with the State of California to donate the mansion to the state for payment of half the appraised value of its land, a deal that was finalized in 1953.
Attractions and Tours
Today, Vikingsholm is owned by the State of California under the supervision of the Sierra State Parks Foundation, operated as a living history home museum open to the public for guided tours throughout the summer months. It has been incorporated as part of Emerald Bay State Park’s Harvey West Unit, which has been declared as a National Natural Landmark. In 1996, the home was added to the National Register of Historic Places, ensuring its continued preservation as a historic cultural landmark in the Lake Tahoe area.
As an example of the American Craftsman and Scandinavian Revival schools of architecture, the mansion is considered one of the greatest examples of Scandinavian-style architecture within the United States. The 38-room mansion showcases granite boulder work typical of 11th-century Swedish castles and timber work resembling early Norse architecture, including door border work modeled after historic church entrances. The home’s sod roof is covered with wildflower plantings, while its roof ridges showcase dragon head sculpture work. The Scandinavian motif is carried throughout the home’s interior, which showcases traditional Nordic fireplaces, wall and ceiling paintings, and living room beams with dragon carvings. Many of Knight’s original personal furnishings have been preserved within the mansion, including a hallway clock popularly known as “Selma” and a number of rare Swedish and Norwegian fine art reproductions. The home is noted for its exemplification of the relaxed, scenic atmosphere associated with the Emerald Bay’s status as an elite resort area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Public tours of the home are offered throughout the summer months, hosted by docents from the Sierra State Parks Foundation. Tours run daily between the end of May and the end of September, with tours lasting approximately 30 minutes. Tickets for home tours may be purchased at the park’s Visitor Center, which is located near the mansion. Tour rates are offered for adult and student visitors, with children under seven admitted free with a paying guardian ticket. All tour proceeds benefit restoration and educational programming at the mansion, including private field trip opportunities for elementary and secondary school groups, which may be reserved by contacting the Sierra State Parks Foundation via phone or email.
As the mansion is only accessible via a steep mile-long trail hike from the parking area, any visitors with accessibility concerns should contact California State Parks before purchasing tour tickets. The mansion may also be accessed via private boat service and may be viewed during the off season from the park’s South and North Shores. Periodic public event programming is held at the mansion by the Sierra State Parks Foundation, including semiannual fundraising gala events.
CA-89, Tahoma, CA 96142, Phone: 530-525-9530