There’s something special about a lake house. The term coaxes thoughts of bare feet, sun-streaked wood floors and the gentle echo of waves lapping the shoreline. “A lake house is the essence of summertime,” says designer Lauren Nelson, adding “bright, airy and expansive” to the list of words used by her clients to describe the feeling they hoped to evoke at their retreat near Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay. “They wanted a true vacation home–approachable, family friendly and not overly decorated.”
Charged with designing the structure that would embody those sentiments, architect Clare Walton first considered the extraordinary site, which is located near the slightly shallower bay on the west side of the lake. “Some of Lake Tahoe’s most beautiful historic homes are situated on the west shore and this site offered a rare stretch of totally private sandy beach,” she recalls about the pristine locale. “For a lakefront property, you want a linear and very horizontal layout so all the spaces can enjoy the amazing views, and we ended up using the entire width of the building envelope.”
The nature of such a stretched-out structure also required an excessively large engineered building pad, and general contractors Rich Loverde and Brian Parker were given that construction task. “The pad ended up being about 100 feet wide, 310 feet long and 8 feet deep, and it was the most challenging part of the job,” says Parker. Lack of natural gas in the area also drove the decision to introduce geothermal heating and solar panels. “It is a large piece of property, so we were able to house both systems on the upper end of acreage,” adds Loverde.
The homeowners, a couple with grown children, knew early on they wanted a Shingle-style dwelling, and Walton looked to the local vernacular (including the classic Tahoe chalet) for inspiration. Using an iconic gable as an organizing feature, the architect introduced a steeply pitched version that she then merged with lower shed roof forms and detailed with exposed rafter tails and crisp white trim. “The shingles speak to the older character of the local homes, the rafter tails express the structure and the white trim details are a nautical nod that give the house a sense of freshness,” explains Walton.
Immediately inside, intimacy defines the entry, which Nelson intentionally outfitted with an antique Spanish Colonial sideboard, a raw-steel framed mirror and little else. “It’s where visitors, not the family, enter so it’s meant to be a pretty vignette,” she says. Just beyond, the mood shifts dramatically in the living room where a commanding wall of windows rises to meet the 26-foot-tall ceilings and the full impact of the majestic surroundings elicits a jaw-dropping response. “The high ceiling makes you feel that sense of grandeur like you are outside,” says Walton, who modulated the soaring space with beautifully articulated structural trusses. “I tried to create true forms that have a sense of purpose and the trusses also bring the volume down.”
Rather than try and match the dimensions of the space with oversize furnishings (“There’s not a sofa tall enough to do that job,” notes Nelson), the designer opted to scale the sofa and a quartet of chairs for the room’s lake views. Covering the seating in soft dusty blue and warm gray linens that complement rather than compete with the watery landscape, Nelson says, “We took our color cues from the lake itself.”
In the kitchen a ceiling plane with a pitch change in the middle required the use of structural metal tension rods. “There are no beams, so the rods are holding everything together,” says Walton, who essentially created a celebration of the center axis of the room. Nelson continued the party with an overscale wrought-iron light fixture that shines light on the extension farm table with a durable rustic finish and vintage French chairs. “I decided the dining room light would be the hero. We loved how the material played off the tension bars,” she says. “Like the rest of the house, the room is a balance of traditional and modern.”
To Nelson’s point, the juxtaposition of old and new repeats in the master bathroom where an antique crystal chandelier provides a counterpoint for the modern shape of the concrete tub, and back in the living room the long antique sideboard holds its own with the room’s new pieces. “I like having a sense of modernity, but to quickly follow it by something you’d find at a French flea market,” she explains.
Throughout the house Nelson’s design style dovetailed perfectly with the details that give the house a sense of history. “It’s not just white walls, and things like the wainscoting and paneling make it feel multidimensional,” Walton says. Nelson concurs that those features contribute to the architecture taking center stage. “The project was a group effort and what we did helped punctuate everything,” she says. “But when you walk in, it’s not the chairs that take your breath away–it’s the ceiling and that view.”