Old Tahoe – Taking a Page from the Style Guide of Yesterday’s Super Rich

Our family loves spending our summers at Lake Tahoe, a large, pristine mountain lake in Northern California. While most people are attracted to the lake and its surroundings by the area’s breathtaking beauty, and the many sporty activities on offer, the lake is also home to a wealth of cultural riches and historical treasures, hiding just beneath the surface:


Lake Tahoe’s west shore

No worries, though. As this is a post on interior design, I am not about to drag you on a long, date-peppered journey through Lake Tahoe’s history. Rather, I would like to use it as a device with which to explore in-depth the infamous “Old Tahoe Style”, which has long intrigued me. Mention the words to anyone who’s been to the lake, and they will laugh, minds filled with images of mismatched woods and worn furniture. Yet this style, ghastly as it may be (at least in my experience), somehow had its genesis in the imitation of beautiful estates such as the Pope House, and the Pine Lodge. The mismatch struck me as odd. I wanted to get familiar with both the original and contemporary definitions of “Old Tahoe Style”, and find connections between the two; to figure out how the one might have led to the other. Perhaps I could then use that knowledge to inform my own design decisions, should it ever come down to sketching out the interior of a mountain home.

To begin my journey, I started off searching through real estate listings featuring “Old Tahoe Style” homes. My preconceived notions were quickly confirmed.

While the term certainly sounds romantic enough, conjuring up images of large crackling fireplaces, cosy log cabins, comfy hides, rustic kitchens, cosy reading corners and heavy stone floors (you get the picture), the reality was a bit of a disappointment. True, many homes do indeed feature impressive rubble stone fireplaces, heavy quartzite floors, old-school kitchens and lots of wood. (Some even succeed in bringing all these elements together in a pleasing sort of harmony!) But, unfortunately, the vast majority (and I would bet, the sad majority, too), showcasing these selfsame traits combine them in such careless ways that the stereotypical Tahoe cabin charm is not only lost, but rudely replaced by an impression of utmost stuffiness, and lack of taste.

A couple pet peeves:

  • Using three to five different types of wood in one room
  • An overdose of accessories and patterns supposed to bring the outside in, e.g. in the form of pine cones, cute squirrel figurines, ski shoes, skiers, antlers, boat-themed souvenirs, you name it
  • Small and large paintings, put wherever there is space on the walls (for good measure, these arrangements are often “complimented” by colourful Indian artwork (baskets, tapestry, carpets, etc. – stunning in their own right, but not so great when carelessly draped over a wall))
  • Big and bulky – cabin-comfy (?) – living room furniture, oftentimes upholstered in leather or in velvety, occasionally heavily patterned fabric.
  • Gilded taps


So, obviously that can’t be it. Or can it? To learn more, I signed up for guided tours to two of the finest examples of Old Tahoe styled homes – the Ehrman-Hellman House at Sugar Pine Point, and the Pope’s residence in south lake Tahoe.

Let’s take a quick look at what I found!

The Ehrman-Hellman House (The Pine Lodge)

IMG_4393-001A Bliss and Faville Design, the Pine Lodge was commissioned in 1901 by banker Isaias Hellman. Sandwiched between two granite bookend towers, its wide porch faces the lake. Two massive chimneys at either end of the building add further to its rustic character. The house was used by the Ehrman/Hellman families and their guests as a summer residence for more than 60 years (from 1903-1965) (-> see Mires, 2016).

Living/Dining. The main entrance to the building is via the porch. A large foyer separates living and dining rooms which are located to the right and left of it, respectively. In both rooms, fire places at the narrow ends form the focal points. The colour scheme is muted throughout (dark wood combined with burgundy or forest green walls and rugs) which lets the rooms appear dark. The furniture style is surprisingly light and elegant (no overstuffed chintzy sofas here!). Chairs and tables can easily be rearranged to suit any number of guests and occasions. The original Spanish chandeliers lend a rustic feel to the interiors. Accessories are limited to freshly cut flowers, a few Indians baskets and some selected pieces of china.

In lieu of paintings or other wall decor, the dining room (which could seat up to 30 people) sports beautifully woven redwood/grass mat panels on both ceiling and walls. According to our guide, they have never been restored – yet they still look like new.

Bedrooms. Walking up the striking staircase leads the visitor to the many family and guest bedrooms of the lodge which are all located on the second floor with views towards the lake. Almost all bedrooms have their own baths (7 in total). The original furnishings in the guest bedrooms were simple yet comfortable. Each bedroom had a pitcher of ice water, an oil lamp, and, of course, flowers! Fresh blooms were cut daily from the nearby gardens  … Flushed toilets were installed when the house was originally built, while electrical light was first generated with the help of a steam generator. Only in 1927, was the lodge connected to the electrical grid.

Each bedroom is decorated differently. What they have all in common, though, are color schemes that feature pastels or white, a restrained use of patterns (e.g. limited to soft furnishings), sheer curtains letting in lots of light and carefully selected accent colours. The walls are generally left empty. In all, the rooms appear to be comfortable and welcoming, while simple and devoid of clutter.

Servant quarters. The many rooms of the servants are located in the back of the house. The largest and most beautiful rooms belonged to the nanny and the seamstress. Why? The nanny usually had to deal with all the family’s children and those of their guests. Thus she needed a lot of space to keep them under close supervision. The seamstress meanwhile needed all the light she could get to fix, adjust, and repair the clothes of the lady of the house and her guests. As it was not uncommon back then to change clothes three to five times a day, she certainly had a busy job. Room furnishings and finishes are fairly basic. This said, many rooms still feature hardwood flooring, carpets, and nice, sheer curtains.

(Interestingly, stairs and hallways had linoleum flooring which seemed to be very much in line with what “was generally done” back then. For the rich, living “in the woods” certainly did not mean to be behind the times!)

The Pope House (“Vatican Lodge”)

IMG_4586-001The Pope Estate is one of  three homes that now comprise the Tallac Historic Site on Tahoe’s south shore. George A. Pope bought the property in 1923 and dubbed it “Vatican Lodge”, in playful reference to his surname. Similar to the Pine Lodge, the Pope House was only occupied in summer (from May to September). It was notoriously difficult to heat … (even during our short one-hour-long guided tour, we noticed how chilly it was inside the building).  In contrast to the Pine Lodge, family quarters and guest rooms were kept separate. While the family had their bedrooms in the main house, guest accommodation was provided in the form of small cabins (all complete with bedroom and bath), located close by on the property.

Living. The visitor enters the building from the lake side passing into a generously sized panelled foyer that features beautiful glass pocket doors (a novelty back then!) on either side.  To the right is the large living room. It features windows on three sides, beautiful hardwood flooring, a massive fireplace and an oversized built-in wooden bookshelf. Bookshelf and fireplace are located opposite of each other, together delineating the center of the  room, while  visually balancing each other. Elegant wooden furniture (among other things a chess table with four side chairs) are placed against the lake facing window, while heavier upholstered furniture forms the main seating area in front of the fire place. The room’s color scheme is muted, combining dark stained wood on floors, ceilings, walls, and furniture with burgundy-colored, oriental carpets. In contrast to the Pine Lodge’s living room, however, chairs and sofas are upholstered in off-whites, offering some welcome contrast. Overall, however, and despite the many windows and the white chairs and sofas, the room comes across as fairly dark.

Dining. The dining room located at the opposite side of the house (on the same floor) meanwhile surprises with lots of patterns. Upon closer examination, it features actually just one pattern, but one that is nearly ubiquitous: one finds it on the walls, curtains, and other soft furnishings. The flooring, by contrast, is held comparatively simple: a monotone carpet covers most of the hardwood floor, while a simple rectangular dining table, painted in a dark green, is the undisputed focal point. While pretty elegant (despite the pattern overload), this room, too, is pretty dark. Maybe some additional lighting – e.g. in the form of recessed ceiling lights – would have helped? Accessories are sparse: apart from some selected pieces of china displayed on a small tea table, a vase with freshly cut flowers on the window sill, and a flower arrangement on the dining table, nothing else is displayed. For good reason, I think.  Any more clutter would have probably led to a severe case of sensory overload given that the patterns on wall and soft furnishings are extremely vivid.

Hall and stairways are artfully panelled in dark wood – no patterns here -, creating an atmosphere akin to that of a British Gentlemen’s club: formal, calm, and comfortable.

Bedrooms. Upstairs, the bedrooms keep to much lighter shades. Again, we find lots of patterns here, although they are of a less drastic sort than those chosen for the dining room. Here, the color schemes combine creams, muted reds and greens. Overall, the rooms are bright and welcoming. My favourite turned out to be a porch that can only be accessed from Mrs Pope’s bedroom. Panelled in wood and furnished with white wicker furniture it looks extremely inviting. The only problem: it does not seem to be heated … and could probably only be used when wrapped up in a thick blanket.

Each bedroom has its own bathroom. The walls are panelled and the color schemes simple, consisting of neutrals, white and some pops of blue … As a result, they come across as surprisingly crisp, and bright. Of course, it helps that they are also pretty big when compared to today’s bathrooms.



So, these are only two examples. I would have some more … e.g. that of Vikingsholm … but I guess even these two homes already demonstrate what “Old Tahoe” actually is.

In my opinion, it refers to a rustic yet elegant style that makes ample use of beautifully finished wood (not necessarily many different types of wood, though!), which is usually stained dark. Living and dining rooms are held in muted colours and may or may not be “blessed” with a certain preference for dramatic (nature-related) patterns. Overall, though, the style stops short of overloading the visitor with patterns and doodads (I love that word). This is probably due to the fact that we are dealing with summer residences, located in the mountains. They are meant to be practical, must easily accommodate a lot of guests, need to be easy to clean and service (and close up for the winter). The bedrooms tend to be bright, featuring colour schemes that combine whites and pastels. They are usually all slightly different, come with their own bathrooms, and are without exception inviting and comfortable looking.

In short, I kind of  liked what I saw. The original “Old Tahoe Style” is in fact very different from what I first noticed when combing through the real estate listings of “Old Tahoe Style” homes. Arguably, the new definition has superseded the old, and is certainly what comes to most people’s minds when the title is named. Yet we would do well to recall the elegant aesthetic of traditional Tahoe.



(Thank you, Amy, for letting me use some of your Pope House pictures!)




















Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s