Lake Tahoe’s viking castle is being restored with support from nonprofit groups

Like many old houses, Vikingsholm, the “hidden castle” in Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay State Park, needs repairs to its frayed wiring and leaky ceilings. But as one of the finest examples of medieval Scandinavian architecture in the United States, it also requires some special fixes.

The sod roof on the servants’ quarters needs new soil and wildflowers. Roof peaks shaped like dragons’ heads have to be carved anew. And wooden spikes on the eaves that keep out evil spirits require resharpening.

“If you have a house yourself, you know it’s expensive to do basic things, so you can imagine what it’s like to essentially run a castle,” said Cecille Caterson, program manager with the California State Parks Foundation. The group has helped raise about $2 million to maintain Vikingsholm over the past two decades.

With an $11,000 annual maintenance budget, the state barely provides enough money to keep Vikingsholm in varnish, let alone restore its retro-medieval features. So private foundations have been filling the funding gaps and leading the fix-ups.

The new sod roof will cost $90,000. The upgrades to electrical wiring from the 1920s will run $60,000. Almost all the money for the jobs will come from fundraising by the Sierra State Parks Foundation and the California State Parks Foundation.

The same story is playing out across California as private groups take a bigger role in running State Parks amid long-term budget cuts. A draft plan for the future of the parks looks to nonprofit groups as major supporters.

“State Parks doesn’t have a dedicated source of money or a plan to care for thousands of historic landmarks throughout California. It’s fallen to private foundations to pick up the slack,” said Heidi Doyle, executive director of the Sierra State Parks Foundation, which supports Vikingsholm and other parks around Lake Tahoe.

A 2010 investigation by The Sacramento Bee and other McClatchy newspapers in California found years of budget cuts had produced a $1 billion backlog of crumbling buildings and eroding trails in the state’s 280 parks. The situation hasn’t improved much since then.

“It’s absolutely no secret that the state parks end up with a deferred maintenance budget over time,” said Scott Elliott, superintendent of parks in the Tahoe region. “The cooperating associations certainly help bridge that budget gap.”

The Sierra State Parks Foundation is running Vikingsholm’s history tours and visitors center under an agreement with State Parks, Elliott said. The work being done on the house is a collaboration between the foundation and the state, which provides curators and interpreters, among other personnel and services, he said.

A draft plan from the Parks Forward Commission envisions such partnerships as one key to the future of California’s state parks.

“Expanded collaboration with park supporters is critical to help the (parks) department achieve its mission and meet the needs of the state,” reads the latest draft report from July 30. The commission will hold a series of public meetings through May 2015; the next meeting is scheduled for Nov. 20 in Sacramento.

State lawmakers created the commission after The Bee reported in 2012 that parks leaders had hidden more than $20 million in “surplus” funds, even as they moved to close 70 state parks because of a $22 million budget shortfall.

Nearly all the parks stayed open after private donors, foundations and nonprofit groups stepped in to operate them or provide funding. Legislators allocated the amount of hidden funds, $20.5 million, to the parks, including $10 million to match donations from outside groups or to help nonprofit groups operate parks.

The Parks Forward Commission’s draft plan proposes that a nonprofit state parks conservancy should help collect and distribute private dollars to parks. It urges the state to provide consistent funding after years of budget volatility but doesn’t specifically encourage additional state spending.

The state’s general fund spending on state parks hit its modern peak of $175 million in fiscal year 2006-07 before falling to $110 million in 2012-13, ​according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Last fiscal year, the state spent about $116 million in general fund revenue on parks.

There is still a large funding gap. The draft report identifies 3,200 historic structures among park resources in need of maintenance.

“There’s an opportunity all over the state to restore buildings. The state doesn’t have the money but friends’ groups do, so we want to promote that and make it easier,” said Ken Wiseman, executive director of Parks Forward.

“The last 20 years, with the two downturns, we cut and then we never rebuilt,” Wiseman said. “You weren’t repairing roofs and toilets, and soon it starts to catch up with you.”

David Rolloff, a professor of parks administration at California State University, Sacramento, said the balance between private and public funding for state parks has been debated for at least the last 15 years and will remain a major issue. He questioned whether the Parks Forward draft plan adequately addresses the need for more state funding, or simply lets the state off the hook.

“Sometimes I want to say: ‘No, the state still needs to contribute money, and it can’t all be on the shoulders of the conservancies,’ ” Rolloff said.

Vikingsholm is a prime example of a parks facility that has relied upon nonprofit foundations to take a leading role in upgrading a neglected historic site.

The mansion was built in the late 1920s by Lora J. Knight, a wealthy heiress from Montecito, whose first husband, an Illinois corporate lawyer, had amassed large stakes in companies including the Union Pacific Railroad and the National Biscuit Company, according to park tour guides. She was worth, in today’s terms, more than $4.5 billion, they said.

Knight felt the rugged scenery of Emerald Bay, with its towering cliffs and crashing waterfalls, reminded her of fjords she had visited in Norway.

In 1928, she bought 239 acres at the head of the bay, including rocky Fannette Island, for $250,000, a sizable sum at the time. Workmen poured the foundation for the house that summer.

The setting called for old-fashioned Scandinavian architecture, Knight decided. She hired her nephew, a Swedish architect, to design the home, and the two traveled to Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden seeking buildings from the Middle Ages that could serve as models.

The next year 200 workmen built the house in one long season. They quarried stone from nearby cliffs and brought timber by boat across Lake Tahoe. The only imported materials were leaded, stained-glass windows from Sweden.

Knight also bought Scandinavian antiques to furnish the home. Most of the original furnishings remain today, even after several changes of ownership.

Knight died in 1945 at Vikingsholm. A Nevada rancher bought it but sold it a year later to Harvey West, a lumberman from Placerville. West transferred ownership to the state in 1953 for $125,000, half the estate’s appraised value at the time.

During her 15 summers at Vikingsholm, Knight hosted numerous guests who came to stay for a weekend or a few weeks.

Among the guests was a young Helen Smith, now 83, who spent her first fourteen summers at Vikingsholm. Her mother was a friend of Knight. As an adult, Smith has played a key role in raising private money to keep the castle in shape.

Smith, who has a doctorate in education from Stanford, worked 40 summers as a tour guide at Vikingsholm and started a fund to help provide for the castle’s upkeep, partly with the proceeds from a guidebook she wrote. The Vikingsholm Fund is still administered by the California State Parks Foundation, and Smith’s history talks, given several times a year, are major fundraisers for the castle.

At a recent event, guests paid $60 each to sip wine, munch appetizers and receive guided tours to parts of the mansion normally off-limits to visitors, such as the screened third-floor porch where Knight often slept and the round library where she’d meet with her financial adviser.

They also heard from Smith, who recounted her adventures at Vikingsholm as a girl, from the daily ritual of high tea to the evenings playing double solitaire with her host.

A few times each summer, tea was served in the small stone “teahouse” on Fannette Island, which many Emerald Bay visitors mistake for Vikingsholm because of its castle-like appearance. Servants would bring food and table settings, and guests would travel by boat to the island, then hike the steep rocky trail to the summit.

“It was an all-day production,” Smith said. The “yardmen” and other servants “would help Mrs. Knight and her guests up to tea.”

The 35 guests at the recent fundraising event listened raptly to Smith tell her story. Many had been to similar events and are regular donors to Vikingsholm.

“It’s such a unique historical site,” said Lorie Gunner of Zephyr Cove, Nev., “and to have Dr. Smith share her experience is amazing.”