The Tahoe Tavern condominium complex located south of Tahoe City is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer as the reincarnation of the original Tahoe Tavern hotel built at the turn of the 20th Century. Built as a summer resort, in 1926 a Southern Pacific Railroad subsidiary named Linnard Steamship Co. acquired the luxury hotel and casino from the descendants of Duane L. Bliss, who had opened it in 1902.
Editor’s Note: Parts I & II may be read at TheTahoeWeekly.com.
In the late 1920s, an opportunity to expand into winter sports appeared at North Lake Tahoe. After the purchase of the Tavern, the new operators decided to open the facility from December to March, in an attempt to develop a winter business. Transportation to the lake was provided by SPRR, which maintained a track from the main line in Truckee to the hotel. The train provided reliable winter access for tourists heading to Tahoe.
Both Southern Pacific and the Linnard group recognized the economic potential for operating the hotel during the normally closed winter season and preparations were made for a variety of entertainment and sports activities. Southern Pacific promoted its new winter sports operation by scheduling overnight weekend excursion trains from San Francisco, a run they called “The Snowball Special.”
Initially, the main attractions were ice skating and tobogganing near the hotel, but soon a Winter Sports Grounds was developed at a pine-sheltered slope (the current location of Granlibakken Resort) about half a mile west of the hotel. A double toboggan slide was built, and then a 65-meter trajectory jump was opened by December 1927. The jump was designed so that at the apex of their leap, skiers could see distant Lake Tahoe over the forest canopy below. Today, Granlibakken is California’s oldest ski area in continuous operation.
Before long, the Tavern’s winter sports program included skating, downhill and cross-country skiing, and exhibition ski jumping. To entertain their guests, the Tahoe Tavern hired nationally ranked ski jumpers like Norwegian brothers Alf and Sverre Engen to perform daring leaps. While working at the Tahoe Tavern, Alf and Sverre had a signature move where they hit the jump simultaneously, clasped hands in mid flight, and then broke away for the landing. These professional performances drew hundreds of spectators to the Tavern and the future for winter sports looked bright as the crowds swelled. But with no way to winterize buildings built for summer guests, over time, visitors chose other venues during Tahoe ski trips.
By the 1950s, the Tahoe Tavern had deteriorated and its upper floors were condemned as a fire trap. A portion of the wooden structure burned in the early 1960s and the parcel was put up for sale for $1 million. The valuation was low because the hotel could not make a profit, but the real value was in the land. Executives for Moana Development Corporation rightfully considered that price for 25 acres of prime lakeshore property near Tahoe City a great bargain and made the deal. This was shortly after the 1960 Winter Games at Squaw Valley and the investors realized that Lake Tahoe was becoming a popular four-season resort area.
The Tahoe Tavern condominium project was designed by Henrik Bull, a legendary ski country architect. In contrast to the original hulking hotel with a tower nearly 150-feet high, Bull designed a series of low-profile, two-story units with gently sloping or flat roofs. Snow is a good insulator that keeps in the heat during winter, and the steep pitches of the old Tavern shed snow dangerously into huge piles that sometimes lasted into late spring. The crescent-shaped groups of townhouses maximized views and eliminated the straight-line aspect of row houses. Not only was the new construction more in scale with the environment, it was part of Bull’s philosophy of “regional sensibility.”
Towering first-growth sugar pines and cedars, some 6 feet in diameter, abound on the acreage and Bull managed to fit in the condominiums without removing any of the trees. Due to dilapidated conditions, all of the old, wood structures were removed, but the existing swimming pool and 1,000-foot-long pier were renovated. Even during this current drought, the pier reaches water of sufficient depth for watercraft. Where the Tahoe Tavern once stood is now a broad expanse of open grass. Another advantage of the low-profile structures and flat or slightly sloped roofs is that condo owners further from the lake often have a view of Big Blue.
By 1960, Henrik Bull had earned a reputation as a pioneer of snow country architecture in the United States. An avid lifelong skier who embraced the sport at an early age, his building designs incorporated traditional, alpine architecture that focused on efficiency and safety in heavy snow zones. In 1954, he took a ski trip to Squaw Valley where he ran into his friend Peter Klaussen. The two had been roommates in Boston while Bull earned his architecture degree at MIT and Klaussen pursued his MBA at Harvard Business School. Klaussen bought a parcel of land in Squaw Valley from developer Wayne Poulsen and he asked Bull for an innovative house design.
The completed ski chalet was featured in an illustrated article in Sunset magazine that generated an avalanche of letters requesting the construction plans or more information. Klaussen would go on to plan the layout of Alpine Meadows ski area, as well as many other ski industry achievements, while Bull would make a career designing ski country homes and projects.
Bull’s design thumbprint may be found at many top ski resorts across the country. In the Tahoe area, he was lead architect for the original Northstar Village project, as well as Stillwater Cove in Crystal Bay. Squaw Valley ski developer Alex Cushing hired Bull to design additions to High Camp, which include the swimming pool and lagoon, skating rink and spa. The prolific architect also designed the Squaw Kids building, as well as other Squaw Village renovations.
Henrik Bull died on Dec. 7, 2013, but the Tahoe Tavern condominiums remain as a monument to the talented architect’s sensibilities and expertise. Out of all his Tahoe-based projects, the Tavern remained his favorite to the end. The residents of that community share an important legacy and heritage, more than a century of Tahoe’s colorful history.