Two of the most stunning pieces of Lake Tahoe's history are Thunderbird Lodge and Thunderbird Yacht. The eccentric San Francisco real estate magnate, George Whittell, Jr., built the magnificent Tudor Revival summer estate between 1936 and 1939 and commissioned the Yacht in 1939. Located on Nevada's eastern shore of Lake Tahoe, the historic site consists of a main lodge surrounded by three cottages, a card house, a boathouse, an elephant house, a lighthouse, three garages, and a gatehouse all nestled in a high desert pine forest.
George Whittell (right) was born in 1881 in San Francisco. Numerous legends surround Whittell's activities at his Lake Tahoe estate, including colorful parties and high-stakes gambling in the card house. The eccentric Whittell collected a veritable zoo of wild animals that made guest appearances at the Thunderbird Lodge each summer. Whittell's interest in new technology such as automobiles and airplanes catered to his desire for high speed and risk taking. Lake Tahoe was selected as the site of Whittell's new home because of the natural beauty and remote character of this alpine basin. George purchased vast amounts of east shore property in the 1930s. Though his original intention was large-scale development, when he finished building his estate, Whittell changed his mind and decided to enjoy his privacy. Here he was able to indulge any appetite his active imagination could conceive. The resulting Thunderbird Lodge includes elaborate tree and granite boulder filled grounds with fountains, waterfalls, staircases, and paths. A 600-foot tunnel carved through solid granite connects the main lodge with the card house and the boathouse, home to his famous yacht, Thunderbird.
George Whittell owned the Thunderbird Lodge estate until his death in 1969. Before he died, Whittell sold a portion of his immense Tahoe land holdings to Crystal Bay Development, the State of Nevada, and the National Forest Service. Whittell had held onto this land for 3 crucial decades which greatly aided in and slowed down development efforts on this side of the Lake. In 1972, the Lodge came under the ownership of New York financier, Jack Dreyfus (left) who built an addition to the main lodge on the garage footprints in 1985. The legacy of this remarkable place remains a testimony to his idiosyncrasies, to his era, and to the genius of those who designed and built it.
While the stone manse and mahogany speedboat are the visible monuments to George Whittell, his real gift remains the wide open spaces we all enjoy on the east shore of Lake Tahoe. Only for this man’s penchant for privacy, possibly with a dash of eccentricity, does the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe remain relatively pristine as compared to California’s shoreline dotted with development.
And by fortuitous circumstances, through the combined efforts of Mrs. Joan Gibb, Foundation 36, and so many more, the famous Thunderbird Yacht once again rocks gently in her cavernous boathouse.
Much of the above information is taken from the publication "Castle in the Sky", courtesy of Ronald and Susan James. To purchase this elegant and informative book online, click here.