A Historic Lake Tahoe Home, Restored

A couple commissions a respected local design team to revive this beloved former boardinghouse
Tahoe Open

Photography by Sinead Hastings

Always do right,” Mark Twain famously espoused. “This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” That was the case when Gary and Susan Clemons—who are not related to Samuel Clemens despite the similarities in their last names—purchased and renovated an historic abode on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe in Glenbrook, Nevada.

Tahoe Porch

A welcoming front porch offers a relaxing spot to enjoy the outdoors and watch the activity on Lake Tahoe, where steamboats once ferried visitors to the former Lake Shore House.

Built in 1863 as a planing mill, the building was moved to its current location in the 1870s, where it served as a boardinghouse called the Lake Shore House. Twain himself is widely rumored to have stayed there, and luminaries such as John Muir, Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes also graced its halls. In the 1980s, after serving a variety of purposes, the beloved building was converted into a single-family home.

Tahoe Living

Red bar stools from Ballard Designs pop against the bespoke kitchen island.

The years took a toll, however, resulting in thick pile carpeting, Formica countertops and other dated interior finishes that belied its classic character. After buying the house in 2013, the Clemons recruited architect Dennis Zirbel and interior designer Natalie Zirbel to bring it back to its former glory. “They wanted to restore its historic integrity,” Dennis Zirbel says.

With the help of general contractor Al Chambers, they did just that, gutting the interior, adding attic dormers to create a spacious third-floor bunk room and replacing an awkward, non-historic rear addition with a new two-story one that contains a family room and two bedrooms.

Tahoe Fireplace

One of the white display cabinets flanking the new stone fireplace sports an exterior door for loading firewood.

Separated by a historic hyphen structure and distinguished by slightly different siding and window fenestrations, the new section speaks its own language while complementing the original architecture. “Somebody who knows historic structures would look at this and have a better understanding of what was added on and what was original,” Dennis explains.

Tahoe Buffet

One of owner Susan Clemons’ favorite spots, the cozy dining nook features a custom wood table designed by Natalie Zirbel and made by Thomas Built Cabinets.

To fulfill the Clemons’ desire for a bright and cheerful interior, the designers placed windows strategically to enhance the natural light while still being historically accurate. In addition, they eliminated a wall between the living room and kitchen, creating a spacious, open great room with white shiplap walls and antique heart pine flooring—a material palette that flows throughout the home. “Antique heart pine has a warm glow that helps the interiors come to life,” Natalie Zirbel says.

Tahoe Dresser

Antique furnishings from the owner’s collection and colorful artwork complement the shiplap walls in a bright and airy guest suite.

On one side of the front door, next to the kitchen, the dining room houses a custom dining table that seats 12 surrounded by antique English Windsor chairs. On the other side, a second niche contains a three-sided banquette that looks out onto the lake, a grove of aspen trees and the creek that flows alongside the house.  “It’s a cozy spot to have a cup of tea with a friend or for small intimate dinners,” Susan Clemons says.

Tahoe Stair

Next to the stairway, a built-in wet bar fabricated by Thomas Built “turned out to be a lovely little space that works well for entertaining,” interior designer Natalie Zirbel says.

Equally cozy is the large wood-burning fireplace, which Dennis Zirbel also revamped, raising the hearth and replacing its shiny white tile with locally harvested granite. It’s surrounded by an eclectic mix of furnishings that includes new pieces and reupholstered antiques alongside treasured heirlooms. Pops of red, for example, the island bar stools, punctuate the neutral color palette. “Red is one of Susan’s happy colors,” Natalie Zirbel explains.

An outdoor granite fireplace faces the in-ground spa on the creek setting of the new stone patio—one of Gary and Susan’s favorite spots. They often drink their morning coffee on the nearby covered porch, where they can hear the rush of the creek and watch the sunrise over the eastern mountains. “We enjoy gathering friends in the backyard for cocktails by the creek,” Susan says.

Tahoe Bath

In the master bathroom, a roomy clawfoot tub from Signature Hardware pays homage to the home’s historic past without sacrificing comfort.

Indeed, after the culmination of the nearly three-year project, the Clemons invited everybody in the community to an open house. Wearing a wig and period-specific clothing, their mustached 80-something-year-old neighbor, a Mark Twain impersonator, entertained the standing-room-only crowd of about 80 friends and neighbors, quoting liberally from the author’s classic story “How to Cure a Cold.”

“Everybody had a lot of fun,” Susan says. “They were so pleased to see the lakeshore house cared for and renovated in such a thoughtful way.”

Tahoe Bed

A colorful impressionist painting by Melanee Sylvester hangs over the bed in the light-filled guest suite—one of six bedrooms with private bathrooms.


Gary and Susan Clemons tasked designers Dennis and Natalie Zirbel with creating a bright and airy interior—no easy task for an old structure with smallish windows, but they pulled it off. Here’s how to do it at home.
BE TRANSPARENT The designers added several exterior windows and also utilized interior windows, drenching the interior with natural daylight. CHOOSE THE RIGHT WALL COLORS The Zirbels asked the painters to mock-up several large areas before selecting a soft creamy white that adds warmth while brightening the space. A complementary white hue distinguishes the kitchen cabinetry. LAYER THE LIGHTING A combination of recessed and decorative lighting creates ambient light throughout the interior. “While recessed cans saturate the overall spaces with an even and layered light, decorative chandeliers, pendants and semi-flush fixtures illuminate the ceilings and provide additional downlighting for dining and other tasks,” Natalie says. SELECT WARM MATERIALS The designers incorporated antique heart pine flooring that has an inherent glow. “The gold and honey tones in the pine add radiance and warmth to the white walls and ceilings,” Natalie says. CREATE CONTRAST WITH BLACK IRON HARDWARE AND LIGHTING According to the designers, the high contrast of the black bronze makes the white hues appear even brighter.


ARCHITECTURE Dennis E. Zirbel Architect INTERIOR DESIGN Natalie Zirbel CONSTRUCTION A.R. Chambers Construction


As seen in the May/June 2020 issue



DINING ROOM CHAIRS Antiques – set of Ten English Oak Windsor Chairs, Early 20th Century from George Davis Antiques DINING TABLE Custom –  design by Natalie Zirbel made by Thomas Built Cabinets LIVING ROOM RUG Purchased by Gary during one of his travels in Delhi – made in Kashmir SOFA Antique – reupholstered in Limoges in Mysitc fabric from Pindler CHAIRS Antique – reupholstered in Pauda in Patina fabric from Pindler NOOK TABLE Custom –  design by Natalie Zirbel made by Thomas Built Cabinet CUSHIONS Custom – Deacon in Spa fabric from Pindler KITCHEN BARSTOOLS Casa Florentina Genoa Barstools from Ballard Designs ISLAND PAINT Benjamin Moore Gunsmith Gray PAINT WALL COLOR Benjamin Moore Mascarpone TRIM, CEILING, CABINET COLOR Benjamin Moore Simply White ARTWORK GUEST BEDROOM PAINTING by Melanee Sylvester from Melanee Sylvester Gallery

Categories: Contemporary Homes