Construction of the Thunderbird Lodge was begun in 1936 by a man named George Whittell, Jr., or as he was more commonly called, the "Captain". At the time, Whittell owned approximately 40,000 acres and 20 miles of Nevada shoreline at Lake Tahoe and had plans to develop the land into high-class summer properties, a ski resort and a $1 million hotel-casino. However, as Whittell grew older, his interest in animals, nature and privacy far outweighed his desire for more money and he held on to much of the property until his death in 1969. After Whittell's death, Thunderbird Lodge and adjacent 10,000 acres of property were purchased by Jack Dreyfus of Dreyfus Investments. Dreyfus later sold most of the land to the Forest Service and Nevada State Parks. In 1985, Dreyfus added to the Thunderbird Lodge by building an entertainment room addition connected to the original lighthouse as well as a two-story wing atop the original deck of the garage, both of which are connected by an enclosed, glass bridge. The additions were added to the original design of the property.
The Thunderbird Lodge is one of the last and best examples of a great residential estate on Lake Tahoe from the period in which prominent San Francisco society built homes on the lake. In addition to the main house, there is a Card House, Caretaker's Cottage, the Cook/Butler's House, an elephant barn, the Admiral's House, the Boathouse with adjoining 600' tunnel, and Gatehouse. The Thunderbird Lodge is an example of an approach to architectural design that is intended to be in harmony with its setting. The siting, design and materials of the buildings, landscape features, walls, paths and driveway are a result of this design philosophy. Thunderbird Lodge represents a high level of expertise in building crafts, stone masonry, iron work and wood work. Examples of this craftsmanship are evident in the buildings, tunnel, walls, steps and fountains. The Lodge is also an example of the work of Frederic J. DeLongchamps, who served as Nevada's State Architect and was Nevada's most prominent architect of his era.
The land is forested with a heavy stand of mixed conifers that slopes to the shoreline and provides a panoramic view of the entire Lake and the surrounding mountain ranges, including the Desolation Wilderness and the Mount Rose Wilderness. Its shoreline and creek outlets are a mixture of sandy beaches and massive granite boulders.
In 1998, Del Webb Corporation, a developer of over 50 active adult life-style communities, purchased the Whittell Estate and 140 acres of land for $56 million. In 1999, the American Land Conservancy facilitated a three way land exchange. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management conveyed to Del Webb nearly 4,000 acres of Clark County, Nevada land near Las Vegas and the U.S. Forest Service received the 140 acres of Lake Tahoe land. As the Forest Service declined to acquire and maintain the existing historical structures, the non-profit Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society was formed and then affiliated with the University of Nevada, Reno. The Thunderbird Lodge buildings were conveyed to the Preservation Society along with a $9.8-million note payable to Del Webb.
In 2000, the George Whittell Estate (Thunderbird Lodge) was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2003, Pulte Homes acquired Del Webb and the Preservation Society’s note. That same year, the University of Nevada, Reno disassociated itself with the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society. By 2009, after an aggressive capital fundraising campaign, with generous gifts from Pulte Homes and the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the Preservation Society settled its debts and acquired unencumbered title to Thunderbird Lodge.