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Monday, February 2, 2015

Sierra Nevada splendor awaits at Nakoma

Dining options in the Sierra Nevadas are vastly improved since the jagged range’s most famous tourists crawled back with thumb’s down reviews. But one thing hasn’t changed in the 159 years since the ill-fated Donner Party met its grim end in mountain-sized snow drifts near here.

Plumas County, an hour north of Donner Memorial State Park, is still one of the most desolate regions in all America. Roughly the size of the cramped state of Delaware, pop. 753,538, Plumas County, pop. 20,370, has just one blinking traffic light within its entire 2,618 square mile boundaries. It may be the only traffic light in all the land that is regarded as charming. Tourists have paused for rush hour pictures beneath it.

In fact, a “traffic” light in Plumas County is an oxymoronic coupling right up there with jumbo shrimp, work party and government organization. In Plumas County, there is no traffic. There are no crowds, no tourist traps and no head-splitting buzz from neon night spots.

And the wonder is why not.

Because Plumas County is a splendor of scenery, history, outdoor adventure, championship golf and a world-famous boutique resort that features more “Wright” stuff than the entire sum launched by the Apollo space program.

At the center of it all since 2001 is the Nakoma Resort & Spa at Gold Mountain, the only Frank Lloyd Wright community in the world, according to Wright legacy architect Arnold Roy. “This is the only entire community that looks and works the way Frank Lloyd Wright would want. Nakoma is exactly how the world would look if it had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Many homeowners said the master architect’s cachet coupled with the scenery offered an irresistible lure. “Wright’s a huge attraction,” says Jack Carlson, president of the Gold Mountain Homeowner’s Association. “Like many others, we went to Taliesin West in Scottsdale to go over the archives and select our home. It has beautiful transom windows and clear stories that let in the light. Despite the requirements imposed by being designated a Wright community, I’ve never felt we couldn’t do anything we wanted. The Design Review Committee doesn’t provide obstacles so much as offer alternatives. And the grand uniformity of a Frank Lloyd Wright community is one everyone’s eager to adhere to.”

The resort community is just now emerging from an unseemly two-year stew of lawsuits, bankruptcy and recrimination that pitted neighbor-against-neighbor that leaves you wondering how anyone could be so unhappy in such an Eden-like setting. Of course, the lesson of the actual Eden might be instructive.

The story of Nakoma and Gold Mountain starts with the restless ambitions of Dariel and Peggy Garner. The Garners had earned fortunes in mulitple niche industries involving arts, computers and the growth and distribution of specialty vegetables. Before either had turned 50, they planned to enjoy the spoils of their riches, but another golden opportunity arose. The Midas-touched pair had searched the globe for a place to retire and fittingly found gold, Gold Mountain, that is, the High Sierra splendor, near Graeagle, California, about an hour west of Reno.

“When we found these 1,280 acres for sale on the top of Gold Mountain, we realized we wouldn’t be retiring,” Dariel said in 2004, before the pair had divorced and Dariel sold his stake “to pursue other endeavors.” “This was as perfect a piece of property as we’d ever seen and we wanted to develop it as a resort and golf course community. And we wanted to do it right.”

And that meant doing it Wright. Together they had combed the vaults of Taliesin Architects, the Scottsdale, Ariz., firm dedicated to perpetuating Wright’s genius. 

They had grown enamored of Wright’s 1923 plans for a 24,000-square-foot clubhouse  commissioned by Nakoma Country Club in Madison, Wisconsin. But the submission occurred when Wright’s professional and personal reputations were in unseemly tatters. He’d abandoned his wife and five children for a client’s young bride, whom he eventually left for a third woman, this one 33 years his junior. His innovative design was rejected. Nakoma, like half of the 1,141 others Wright conceived in his lifetime, remained dormant in Taliesin vaults until it was unearthed by the Garners. The couple hadn’t made the significant commitment to Taliesin until one day in 1996 when they were walking on the still-undeveloped property and saw some stray debris came blowing across the otherwise pristine landscape.

“It was an old envelope,” Peggy recalled. “In the corner was a postage stamp with Frank Lloyd Wright on it.”

That settled it. The Garners hired 80 craftsman to execute the blueprint’s most painstaking details. Brick-sized blocks from a Mexico City quarry where Aztec Indians mined for their pyramids were cut, transported north and used to construct the irregular, soaring walls. Lapboard red cedar planks on the  teepee towers were festooned with glass “jewels” that Wright described as a “field of flowers.” With its 2001 grand opening, Nakoma  became only the second public building rescued from the Wright archives since his 1959 death.

And Wright wasn’t the only accomplished architect the Garner’s hired to add emphatic flourish to Nakoma. The pair chose noted golf architect Robin Nelson to design what has become one of the most difficult and beautiful courses in North America. Nelson, designer of both famed courses at Mauna Lani, has built a mountain course that exceeds the beauty and challenge of both Banff Springs and Jasper Park, two famous Canadian Rockies courses that are justifiably renown for their muscular aesthetics. The Dragon features a whopping 800-feet in altitude changes across gaping chasms and memorable vistas that will have golfers admiring the views even as they’re muttering about scorecard miseries.

The result and the splash debut of Robin Nelson’s spectacular 18-hole course, “The Dragon,” launched a chorus line of accolades from many of the world’s top golf, travel and architectural magazines. 

This, combined with an aggressive advertising and sales budget, built a buzz about the Frank Lloyd Wright community in the clouds where the street signs bore evocative  names like “Dream Maker,” “Cloud Painter,” and “Windsong.” Nearly 150 years after prospectors reportedly hauled $25 million in precious metals out of the area, a new gold rush had commenced.

The 400 lots sold out, some for as little as $59,000 an acre. The grandiosity of Nakoma’s plans included tennis courts, a pool, neither of which have been built, and other amenities that attracted people willing to pay $12,500 memberships, but conditions began to deteriorate along with once-friendly relationships. Roadways began to crumble under the punishing High Sierra weather; problems over the installation of the Gold Mountain gate led to a lawsuit by disgruntled homeowners; $50,000 in water and sewage bills owed to the city of Portola went unpaid; Portola sued. A course that in 2004 was immaculate and consistently ranked among the finest in golf-rich California soon fell into disrepair after its crew of 23 was cut to just six, triggering a further spiral in member dissatisfaction.

Bankruptcy ensued after the Garners in late 2004 defaulted on a $15 million loan from a group of Reno investors. Keystone Properties, a division of the Stamford Group, purchased the 880-acre property during an April 7 bankruptcy auction. Keystone is withholding comment until the sale is finalized, but homeowners are already expressing enthusiasm.

“We’re confident that the new ownership will put all these troubles behind us,” Carlson says. “This is too good a piece of property for it not to prosper. I believe the new owners are going to help Gold Mountain reach its full potential, and that means the sky’s the limit. This place is precious.”

Plumas County celebrated its sesquicentennial in 2004, an anniversary that harkened back to the days when California Gold Rushers reportedly hauled $25 million in precious metals from the area that is today is “Gold” Mountain in name only.

There may no longer be much gold in them thar hills, but what’s left is still plenty precious.

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