Defining Lake Tahoe architecture |

Defining Lake Tahoe architecture

Tahoe Daily Tribune Staff Reports
Dan Thrift/Tahoe Daily Tribune Architect Alan Tolhurst surveys the view from an upper deck of a home he designed.

Building season brings new examples of Alpine style

By Susan Wood

Tribune staff writer

From the look of individual structures, it appears South Lake Tahoe architecture has withstood the test of time through the years.

And to architects, there’s room for improvement without degrading the lifestyle, environment and character Tahoe people have come to know and love going into grading season May 1. This is the date the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency allows the turning of earth on construction jobs.

Architects are trying to elevate the area to world-class destination status.

We’ve all seen it. The million-dollar home next to the Tahoe shack.

“That’s part of the charm here,” South Shore architect Alan Tolhurst said of the escape from cookie-cutter neighborhoods. “Back then, for $5,000, you could buy a home in Tahoe, and it didn’t matter if it had heat because the people would only come up in the summer.”

Tolhurst described an environment in which beer kegs filled with concrete were used as floor supports.

“Buildings were held together with chewing gum,” he said during a tour of Tahoe communities Tuesday. He’s worked on projects from Fallen Leaf Lodge and General Store – an example of old Tahoe architecture – and the Days Inn, to Tahoe Fly Fishing Outfitters and his own three-story, 2,500-square-foot dream home on Muskawaki Drive. It’s due for completion in July.

Tolhurst used his house as an example in “mountain expression,” a term San Francisco architect Theodore Brown coined after working on the Cecil’s Fountain Plaza building.

“I’m an artist. I think the building should express what people like about Tahoe. To me, it’s granite and mountains and strength,” said Tolhurst, a rock climber and mountaineer.

A cross between Alpine and contemporary, a rough concrete wall leads up to the cedar and rust-colored synthetic stucco home set into a terraced hillside for environmental purposes. Tolhurst, who serves on the TRPA’s Advisory Planning Commission, designed the concrete walls into pillars in the front. They continue into the interior of the house.

Tolhurst climbed two-thirds of the way up the wall over the patio, showing where his 3-year-old daughter, Zyena, has created her own art.

Down below, a wine cellar and exercise room beckons the homebody to the basement.

Tolhurst has spent much time studying architecture and appreciates good design when he sees it.

“She’s done a good job fixing it up like the cabins she rents,” he said, referring to Greta Hambsch, owner of Accommodation Station.

He describes the Red Hut as fantastic on Highway 50, an eclectic-looking thoroughfare.

“There are nice buildings here that give it a sense of history,” he said. And size, which is immaterial, shows the depth of offering.

Twin Pines, set off the shoreline at Stateline, was designed by Julia Morgan, who also brought her famed creative visions to the Hearst Castle in San Simeon and Berkeley’s Greek Theater.

And as far back as the 1869 Park building near Kingsbury, cabins are a dime a dozen as a part of the landscape in Tahoe – but some were built with a unique style that shows the look of Tahoe. These could be too expensive to emulate, even with modern building methods. A small stone building found at Fallen Leaf would cost about $150 per square foot these days.

So for commercial structures, the tendency is great to build a standard look that’s cheaper and more convenient.

Tolhurst points out several commercial buildings on Highway 50 as examples of disjointed architecture using materials slapped on as decorative pieces.

“Edgewood (Tahoe Golf Course) is a good design because it’s not trying to look like an old-fashioned building,” he said.

To varying degrees, architects Tolhurst, Brown and Brian Shinault see installing cheap facades as the downfall of Tahoe architecture. They view the practice as quelling creativity but recognize inroads made on the South Shore to spruce up the environment.

Zephyr Cove Dental took eight months of gutting and changing the exterior of the building on McFaul to reflect what’s called the Alpine style. Dr. Jack Harrington said the revamp cost more than a standard remodel, but “that’s the effect we wanted,” he said.

Shinault said he wanted to display more creativity in the Applebee’s restaurant, but he was forced to walk the line between meeting building guidelines and maintaining a budget.

“Applebees was a prime example. The one in Tahoe is the most expensive in the chain. A lot of buildings cost more, and people don’t understand,” he said of the complexities of construction.

– Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 541-3880 or via e-mail at

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