Tahoe City — Nontraditional designs rarely have found footing in the mountains, where vacationers have preferred that their getaways resemble forest cabins or rambling lodges. Although a blast of flat-roof and glass construction appeared at Lake Tahoe before the 1960 Olympics, the builders soon found that the roofs leaked or collapsed under snow. In time, “Old Tahoe” architecture triumphed, loyal to the gable dormers and sloping earthbound rooflines popular in the Alps and Scandinavia. The style prevailed until now.
Contemporary designs are gaining ground in several Tahoe locales, from Incline Village to Alpine Meadows, from Tahoe Donner to Tahoe City, but they are most abundant in Martis Camp, the new gated community near Truckee. Forty to 50 percent of the more than 100 homes under construction or finished at Martis Camp speak the visual language of the early 20th century International Style: flat or low-sloping roofs, short or no overhanging eaves, open floor plans, and long spans of steel. Exterior ornament has disappeared, and plate-glass walls reveal wide vistas. Lightweight, steel-supported roofs seem more related to sky than earth.
Inside, ambience is achieved through the infiltration of light and the arrangements of space and materials, rather than with the applied ornament of wainscoting and trim.
“In our area there has been a preconception that peaked roofs and multiple layers of details were requirements of mountain architecture,” says architect Clare Walton of Walton Architecture and Engineering in Tahoe City. “Recently we have seen success in utilizing clean lines, especially in the roofscapes.”
But the boxy design doesn’t tempt everyone. A few Tahoe architects contend that for all of its spare beauty, modernism means trouble. “The overhangs of traditional architecture are important, not only for the snow and rain but also for the sun exposure and heat efficiency,” says architect Sherry Guzzi of Sherry Guzzi Architect in Tahoe City. A great house will work well with the environment and also respond to the needs of the occupants, she says.
Contractor Bruce Olson concurs. Most of his luxury homes have blended the pitch-roofed Old Tahoe vernacular with the muscular traditions of architecture in Norway and Sweden, although he also has built modernist-style homes.
“A traditional Tahoe home will incorporate wood, stone and warmer colors,” Olson says. “Some of the more contemporary homes are letting the outside in with glass, but there’s not a lot of wood. Let’s say you’ve been outside all day in the elements, and you come home and your home is all white and spotless clean. To me, that feels cold.”
A home needs to reflect a sense of place, as well, they say. “The (modernist) house could be in Malibu, Spain … anywhere,” Olson says. “It doesn’t define Tahoe. With true Old Tahoe architecture, you’ll have a hard time saying what year it was built. It’s timeless. It has always been more of a romantic style capturing the real feel of the Earth.”
This article ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, November 4, 2012.