Vikingsholm Celebrates 90 Years

Vikingsholm at Emerald Bay. | Mark McLaughlin

Lora Josephine Knight’s legacy is enshrined in the magnificent Vikingsholm that she built 90 years ago in Emerald Bay. In 1928, the she purchased the 240-acre property from the William Henry Armstrong family for $250,000. The acquisition included the bay’s Fannette Island. Knight had become acquaintances with the Armstrong’s through church affiliations and Lora adored the picturesque bay that reminded her of a Norwegian fjord. In 1929, she had her majestic Scandinavian-designed home constructed.

Read about Lora Knight’s Wychwood Estate

Lora Knight was very familiar with Lake Tahoe having previously owned a charming lakefront estate called Wychwood at Chinquapin, a sheltered cove just east of Dollar Point near Carnelian Bay. Eight years before her marriage to Harry Knight, Mrs. Josephine Moore purchased the land at Chinquapin from descendants of timber baron Duane L. Bliss. During her summer vacations, Mrs. Moore enjoyed squiring guests across Big Blue in her classic wooden runabout named “Chipmunk.”

Vikingsholm tours
Daily 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. until Sept. 30
Tours every 30 minutes

Lora Small was born in Galena, Ill., in 1864. Her father, Edward Small, was a corporate lawyer who took on two brothers as partners in his law practice — William Henry Moore and James Hobart Moore. As fate would have it, Lora married James and her sister Ada married William. After Edward Small’s death, William and James took over the firm and formed the Moore Brothers partnership. The sibling entrepreneurs eventually amassed a fortune with controlling interest in a number of large American corporations such as the Diamond Match Company, U.S. Steel and National Biscuit (Nabisco), the maker of Oreo cookies.

In 1884, Lora gave birth to their only child, a son Nathaniel, who later married Helen Fargo, heiress to the legendary Wells Fargo banking dynasty founded in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Nathan was an avid golfer and a participating member of the American Olympic team that won the gold medal at the 1904 Summer Games in St. Louis, Mo. Nathan was rich and reckless; he died at the age of 25 of “natural causes” after spending the previous night at the Everleigh Club, Chicago’s most famous and expensive brothel. His nationally reported death led to a crackdown on Windy City bordellos and morphine abuse.

Other than their son’s tragic death, life was good for the Moores. But after their purchase of the Chinquapin property, James’ health began to fail. In early 1916, they bought a home near Santa Barbara hoping that the mild Mediterranean climate might improve his condition, but he died on July 20, 1916, leaving an estate worth $15 million to Lora.

In 1922, Lora Moore married Harry F. Knight, a stockbroker from St. Louis. Unfortunately, they were not happy together and divorced after two years. Lora and Harry had met Charles Lindbergh when they hired the young airmail pilot to fly them over a possible home site. Lindbergh ran into Harry Knight again at a St. Louis airfield where he was taking flying lessons. Lindbergh approached the couple about helping fund his historic attempt to be the first to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. A divorce was looming, but they agreed to be major supporters. In later years, Lindbergh frequently visited Lora at Vikingsholm.

Lora Knight had a life-long reputation for generous hospitality, philanthropy and financial contributions to youth groups in California and Nevada. Knight loved Lake Tahoe and for 16 years she enjoyed her summers at Wychwood, hosting friends and family members. In 1928 she sold her lakefront estate to Robert Stanley Dollar, a wealthy San Francisco businessman, and immediately bought Emerald Bay. She commissioned Swedish architect Lennart Palme — to whom she was related by marriage — to design Vikingsholm. She chose the Scandinavian motif because she admired Palme’s Scandinavian-designed home in New York; the Emerald Bay scenery was reminiscent of steep fjords she had explored in Norway. Palme and Knight traveled to Scandinavia that summer to research the design features that would be incorporated into Vikingsholm. They visited Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden as they inspected buildings dating back centuries.

The structure was built quickly during 1929 as 200 workmen and artisans, housed in temporary barracks, quarried nearby stone and cut lumber. Support timbers were hand hewn and interior wallboard meticulously hand-planed, while metal fixtures like fireplace screens, hinges and latches were hand-forged on site. In order to preserve the natural environment of Emerald Bay, Knight insisted that local materials be used with the exception of the leaded windows with stained-glass panes imported from Sweden. Lennart Palme said: “The problem of placing Vikingsholm without disturbing the trees was perhaps the trickiest I have had to solve either abroad or in these United States.”

Finnish carpenters were brought in because of their skill hewing timber, while a Scandinavian craftsman was hired to create intricate exterior wood carvings. Carvings from ancient church entrances were incorporated into many Vikingsholm door entries. Pieces of wood resembling spikes adorn the gutters in a nod to the Scandinavian custom used to ward off evil spirits. The roof of the north and south wings is topped with sod where grass and flowers grow each spring. Carved dragon heads are common decorations; they were used in old Viking castles to divide the main room between the chieftain and his honored male guests from women and children.

Knight filled her castle with antiques she picked up in Scandinavia. If native heirlooms could not be removed from the country, Knight had craftsmen reproduce them in exact detail, including the aging of the wood and even mimicking scratches on the originals. Despite its ancient motif, Vikingsholm had all the conveniences available in the 1930s, including electricity, modern fixtures and private baths in the bedrooms. There was also a boathouse for Knight’s largest boat, a beautiful mahogany cabin cruiser named the “Valkyrie.” The estimated cost for the total project was $500,000.

During construction of the main house, Knight had a granite teahouse that resembled a small castle built on the crest of Fannette Island in the middle of Emerald Bay. Locally quarried boulders were ferried by barge to the island where derricks lifted them stone by stone. Despite the expense and effort, the structure was rarely used. Knight spent the rest of her summers at Vikingsholm until her death in 1945.

A narrow road connects Vikingsholm with State Route 89, but it’s limited to pedestrians. Mrs. Knight had it graded in 1929 for $10,000 so that she and her guests could arrive by automobile. Today, Knight’s Viking home is considered the finest example of Scandinavian architecture in North America.

Vikingsholm is now administered by the California Park System and is open to the public for tours until September 30; the grounds are open year-round. Limited parking is available on Highway 89 in Emerald Bay. The best days to visit are weekdays during the summer.

On Aug. 24, Sierra State Parks Foundation is hosting a birthday party fundraiser for the iconic monument. It is unfortunately already sold out. | sierrastateparks.org, parks.ca.gov