Tahoe castle’s icon honored | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Tahoe castle’s icon honored

Merlyn Oliver, Tahoe Daily Tribune

When Helen Henry Smith applied to be a ranger at Vikingsholm with the California State Parks, the agency turned her down.

No thanks, they said. We can’t pay a woman to do a man’s job. But if you’d like to volunteer, that’s OK.

That was 35 years ago.

In July, the state awarded Smith — who went from being a volunteer tour guide who slept in the campground to an icon as well as a ranger — its Hill Award for Inspiration.

Smith won the award for her single-handed efforts to preserve the house where she had given tours for 34 years as a seasonal park ranger. Vikingsholm, a Norwegian castle replica built in 1929, was acquired by the state in 1953.

The award, named for nature photographer Andrew P. Hill who fought to create Big Basin, California’s first redwood park, is given annually. Colleagues from throughout the state nominate candidates, who then undergo scrutiny by an internal committee. The state parks director makes the final decision.

In Smith’s case, things started coming to a head during the ’90s, when the house started showing its age.

“We could watch it deteriorate,” Smith said. “Even the visitors were starting to comment on it.”

The signature sod roof in the courtyard leaked. Tree roots were cracking the mortar foundation. The chimneys buckled. The wooden beams framing the lead glass windows were rotting.

Smith had worked for the state long enough to know that funds earmarked for restoration projects did not always end up where the need was greatest. She saw money go to upgrading furniture in other grand homes, while Vikingsholm’s irreplaceable carved woodwork was getting water damaged.

In 1998 she decided to do something about it.

Smith took the proceeds from a guidebook she had written about Vikingsholm in the 1970s and knocked on the door of the California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the state’s heritage.

“I had a sizable amount, and I figured it was a start,” Smith said. “I chose them because they have a lot of clout with the state. And they’re consistent. If the state’s administration changes, they can make sure the money will still go to Vikingsholm.”

Working with the nonprofit, Smith set up the Vikingsholm Restoration and Heritage Project.

“When you want to keep something historically accurate, it’s expensive,” Karen Wilson, vice president of the California State Parks Foundation, said. “Sometimes money attracts more money. After we got Helen’s money from her book, we started going throughout California, appealing to those who knew Vikingsholm.”

More than a million dollars has been raised, along with an endowment fund for future restoration projects. The state parks department has stepped in with its own budgeted allocations, including state workers to do the job.

So far new sod and a new roof drainage system have been put in. The flagstones in the courtyard have been redone. Entrance thresholds have been replaced. Work is underway on a split-log roof and repairing the brick chimneys.

Through it all, Helen Smith’s quiet persistence fueled the effort.

“It really was because of her passion and her willingness to come forward with her personal knowledge, money and time,” Wilson said. “It just comes across, her passion. She is so kind and smart. Without her commitment, this project might not have gone forward as it has.”

Indeed, Smith has a claim on Vikingsholm few others can make.

Smith and her family spent 14 summers there, from the time she was a baby. They were the guests of Lora Knight, a wealthy widow from Santa Barbara who conceived of and built the imposing estate.

Helen grew up with the house, running her hands along the fine woodwork inside, curling up in the overstuffed chairs set on oriental rugs, dipping her hands in the fingerbowls that graced every meal. She swam off the boat dock, went with the caretaker in the outboard to pick up the mail at Emerald Bay Resort, slept upstairs in her room with the pink bedspread.

Today Smith’s summer quarters are the caretaker’s cabin next to the main house — poetic justice for the woman who went on to raise a family, earn a doctorate at Stanford University and become Vikingsholm’s best-known caretaker. On a recent tour led by her colleague Rori Cosma, a visitor in the back of the crowd raised her hand.

“Several years ago, we had the pleasure of having the incredible Helen Smith as our tour guide — is she still here?” came the query.

“Yes, she is,” Cosma answered, then said to everyone, “This happens all the time. You’ll get to meet her in a minute.”

But before Smith leads her next tour, she takes a minute at her kitchen table inside the cabin she shares with fellow ranger Martha Black. She recalls how Mrs. Knight would excuse her early from those evening meals, knowing she wanted to go down to the beach rather than sit and talk with the grownups. Helen would swim out to the floating raft anchored in the shallow waters of the bay and lay there, wondering what her future held.

“I never dreamed then that I’d be back here, doing this,” she said.

For more information on making a donation to the Vikingsholm Restoration Project, call the California State Parks Foundation at (415) 258-9975.


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