Today we head up the road to Lake Tahoe in the Roaring Twenties, when the rich were very rich and no one else counted for much. Sound familiar?
A century ago the seriously rich were building seriously spectacular Tahoe summer mansions of native stone, fine woods, and leaded glass. It took serious effort to get there then—local roads hadn’t yet been paved, and road trips were slow under the best circumstances. But apparently, the trouble was well worth it, just to breathe crisp, cool mountain air, swim in crystal waters, race beautiful boats, and party all summer long on Tahoe’s scenic shores. As for those parties: Picture unspeakable luxury, speakeasies, flappers, gamblers, and decadence right out of The Great Gatsby.
F. Scott Fitzgerald could have scripted the Roaring Twenties at Tahoe, in fact, given the area’s colorful cast of characters—the rich and bored plus all sorts of gamblers and real-life criminals, the likes of Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson. When the economy collapsed and the Depression began, Nevada legalized gambling and nothing much changed. Tahoe’s gambling tables just moved to the front of the house. Nevada’s liberalized divorce residency laws—shortening the wait time to just six scandalous weeks—kept the wealth flowing in Tahoe’s general direction, and created divorce ranches and resorts. Only strict gas rationing during World War II could finally slow Tahoe’s endless summer party.
Summer is still high season at Tahoe. Start exploring Tahoe’s decadent days at baronial Hellman-Ehrman Mansion at Sugar Pine Point State Park, probably Tahoe’s finest example of a rich person’s summer home, open only in summer for tours though you can poke around the estate’s spacious grounds and peek into outbuildings—including the old boathouses—anytime. Also well worth the time, at Emerald Bay, is 38-room Vikingsholm, a Scandinavian-style summer mansion on the bay’s fjordlike shore. (It’s a scenic one-mile downhill scramble to take the tour, but be warned: It’s at least two or three miles to climb back out.) Considered the Western Hemisphere’s finest example of Scandinavian architecture, Vikingsholm was inspired by all things Norwegian and Swedish—11th-century stone castles, churches, forts, even sod-roofed homes.
But if you have time to visit only one 1920s Tahoe stop, make it the US Forest Service Tallac (tuh-LACK) Historic Site, a 74-acre complex of mansions and outbuildings near South Lake Tahoe. Lucky Baldwin’s Tallac Hotel Casino is long gone—you can wander its ruins—but there’s plenty still standing to experience, including his Baldwin Home, the classy Tahoe stay of the guy who built the racetrack at Santa Anita, now a museum. Not to mention the lavish Pope House and spectacular Valhalla Estate, a great hall with massive stone fireplace, now a popular performance and wedding venue. These days the estate’s boathouse is the Boathouse Theatre.
The venues at Tallac are certainly grand. Thanks to the Tahoe Heritage Foundation and its volunteers you can sign on for all kinds of experiences—everything from docent-guided home tours and the Servants Tour (to see how the rest of us lived and worked) to An Afternoon with Anita Baldwin, Tea and Scones, and the Washoe Ways tour. But because of Valhalla Tahoe there are also endless arts and entertainment draws, from the annual Native American Arts Festival and Will’s Kids Shakespeare program to the likes of Laura Love, Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore, and Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys. Dig out those flapper beads and come the second weekend in August for the two-day Gatsby Festival.