Anyone who has been watching HBO’s popular show, The Gilded Age, knows that in the late 19th and early 20th century, America’s richest residents often built sprawling estates in places like Long Island’s Gold Coast in New York, Newport, Rhode Island, and, in the case of some of California’s wealthiest citizens, Lake Tahoe.
Some of these homes—then simply considered elaborate summer cottages—can still be found at what is now called the Tallac Historic Site on Route 89, north of Camp Richardson. While many of the structures have disappeared over the years—victims of neglect and progress—a few have been preserved and are now managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
One of the best ways to see and experience these homes is via a scenic two-and-a-half-mile-long bicycle and hiking path winds through the historic area.
Traveling through the historic grounds is an opportunity to pretend that you’ve gone back to a time before automobiles and airplanes, when only the super-rich could afford to build seasonal homes in such a once remote but spectacularly scenic place like Lake Tahoe.
The setting is remarkably peaceful and beautiful. The trail is lined with tall pine trees filled with chattering birds and, as you ride along, provides glimpses of the clear, blue waters of the lake.
While the main path is paved, there are several dirt tributaries that snake through the reserve and lead to small, hidden beaches or particularly scenic tree groves.
Development of the Tallac area started in the 1870s, when a man named Yank Clement opened the Tallac Point House on the south shore to accommodate visitors. Yank’s Inn also offered steamboat rides, a saloon and dancing.
In 1880, "Yank's" was sold to Elias "Lucky" Baldwin, a California entrepreneur and professional gambler. Baldwin transformed the sleepy lakeside inn into a 250-room resort that included a casino, ballroom, four bowling alleys, sun parlors and billiards rooms.
Meanwhile, in 1894, George Tallant, son of one of the founders of California’s Crocker Bank, built a rustic summer lodge adjacent to the Baldwin property.
Five years later, Tallant’s sold his lodge to millionaire Lloyd Tevis, who expanded and renovated it, making it the largest and most luxurious in the area. Tevis added servants’ quarters, a dairy, stables and a shaded, garden with Japanese tea house and arched bridges.
In 1923, Tevis sold the compound to George Pope Jr., a San Francisco lumber and shipping magnate. To reflect Pope’s ecumenical name, the estate was nicknamed the "Vatican Lodge."
Also in 1923, another prominent businessman, Walter Heller purchased the land south of the Pope estate. Heller began construction of what would become perhaps the greatest of the Tallac mansions, an impressive stone and wood lodge named "Valhalla."
The early 1920s marked the heyday of the magnificent Tallac homes but was also the end of "Lucky" Baldwin’s resort. In 1920, Baldwin's daughter, Anita, closed the casino-hotel and demolished the buildings.
Later that same year, Dextra Baldwin McGonagle, Baldwin’s granddaughter, constructed a beautiful single-story home on the family property.
For the next four decades, the three estates were private, lakeside vacation homes for their respective owners. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, the large homes proved to be too expensive to maintain and were turned over to the Forest Service (generally for tax considerations).
All three are classic examples of the early 20th century "Tahoe" architecture, which utilized native stone and wood in order to blend with the pastoral surrounding.
The Tallac museum, located on the grounds of the former Baldwin estate, offers original furnishings, a small gift shop as well as changing art exhibits and an informative Washo tribe display (before the homes were built, the area was inhabited by the native Washo Indians).
The Washo exhibit includes a garden filled with various plants on which the tribe subsisted as well as examples of traditional Washo shelters, including a “galis daigal” or winter lodge made of bark and pine poles, and a “gadu” or summer home, built of sagebrush and branches.
The Pope estate is the largest of the three areas and includes the greatest number of surviving buildings. Volunteer efforts are ongoing to maintain and restore the historic structures.
Nearby Valhalla is perhaps the most impressive of the estates with its massive main hall that features a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace. The main house is used for special events.
The 2,000-acre Tallac Historic Site also has picnic tables and several public beaches including Kiva Beach and Baldwin Beach.
The Tallac Historic Site is open between Memorial Day and the end of September. Tours of many of the buildings are also available during the open season. For more information, go to: https://www.thegreatbasininstitute.org/tallac-historic-site/.