Plenty of great ideas have been born on cocktail napkins, but transforming them takes more than an extra shot of Johnny Walker. In the case of the Black Bear Inn, South Lake Tahoe's newest B&B, the vision was there, right from the start. Proprietor Jerry Birdwell believed that Tahoe was ready for a change-a return to the days of rustic elegance and pampered luxury that typified mountain hotels in the early 1900s. And as it turned out, he was not alone in that belief.
Leave it to Birdwell, a strapping former prosecutor from Texas, to sound the charge against architectural mediocrity in California. Having owned a vacation home at the lake for several years, Birdwell poked around the handful of old estates that remain from the last century. He took copious notes and photographs, then got down to business by sketching, on a napkin, his plan for an Old Tahoe-style lodge.
When the Black Bear Inn opened for summer 1999, on a site down the hill from Heavenly's California entrance, the vision had evolved into bricks and mortar-or rather stone and timber. Most impressive is the soaring, three-story Great Room, boasting a massive river-rock fireplace, rough-cut log beams and trusses, and a 32-foot-high cathedral ceiling. Gaze around the room and your eye is drawn to the sweeping log staircase leading to a mezzanine and four of the five guest rooms.
Is this throwback the future of Lake Tahoe? It appears to be. Like a number of alpine resort areas, Tahoe has its share of flattop motels and aging, wood-frame condominiums left over from the Sixties and Seventies, when style and relevance were not even afterthoughts. In those days, most of the palatial lodges that once surrounded the lake had either burned or been torn down. If those elegant resorts existed today, they would be in a class with Yosemite's stately Ahwanee Lodge and would be booked months in advance. "It's as if Tahoe has been in a time warp for the past 20 years," says Roger Lessman, general partner with East West Partners, the Colorado developer that is joint-venturing with Booth Creek Ski Holdings to build a new village at Northstar-at-Tahoe.
Maybe you can't restore what's gone, but Tahoe is determined to reinvent itself. Through more than $1 billion worth of new projects and an assortment of creative facelifts, the region is in the midst of an architectural renaissance.
"Everyone is looking at the past to shape the future," says South Lake Tahoe attorney Lou Feldman, who represents Heavenly and other properties that have teamed up in a far-reaching redevelopment project on the California side of the Stateline gaming area. The plan includes a long-awaited gondola (opening this season), an American Skiing Company Grand Summit condo-hotel and a convention and hotel center next to Harvey's casino. All structures will embody the rock-and-timber theme, which will contrast the glossy, high-rise casinos next door.
This season and next, visitors will see more dramatic changes unfold around the lake. Here are other projects in the works:
So, the face of Tahoe is changing, and rapidly. A few short years from now, skiers will find a sense of identity that hasn't existed for more than a half-century. "We've had such a hodgepodge of building styles over the years that we really needed some unification," says South Tahoe architect Mark Allione, who designed the Black Bear Inn. "Now there is clearly a trend back to what is essentially Early American. People are pushing the envelope, and the end result will bring a lot more character and diversity to the lake."