THUNDERBIRD LODGE HISTORY

The magical Thunderbird Lodge National Historic Site is the centerpiece of Thunderbird Lake Tahoe. This historic home of George Whittell, Jr. is a museum and learning center for the charitable programs of the non-profit Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society.


  • 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.

  • George Whittell, Jr., was born in San Francisco on September 28, 1881, to George Whittell, Sr., and Anna Luning Whittell. One of twins, George Jr.'s brother, Nicholas, died at the age of three of diptheria. Born into great wealth, Whittell barreled through life at full-throttle, collecting exotic animals, elegant automobiles and boats, beautiful women, contentious lawsuits and more than 20 miles of Lake Tahoe's Nevada shoreline along the way. He was one of the more notorious playboys of California and Nevada, indulging in a succession of marriages and liaisons that fueled the region's gossip mills. A recluse in his later years, Whittell shunned publicity, and, in doing so, inspired speculation about his every move. By the time of his death in 1969, he had become the stuff of legend.

    George's two immigrant grandfathers shrewdly exploited Gold Rush opportunities, laying the foundation for a financial empire. Hugh Whittell immigrated to America from Ireland in 1828 and came west on a steamship from his home in New York in 1849 following the discovery of gold in California. Nicholas Luning also arrived in San Francisco in 1849 and both quickly tapped into the vibrant economy. Hugh "grubstaked" the miners, doing well on his investments in mining claims. Nicholas opened a bank which specialized in loans to merchants facing financial emergencies. Both invested heavily in San Francisco real estate. Luning also represented the Crocker and Flood families in their rail and land dealings and helped found the San Francisco Water Company, precursor of the company known today as Pacific Gas and Electric.

    The Whittell and Luning fortunes were brought together in 1879 with the marriage of Hugh's son, George, and Nicholas' daughter, Anna. Upon her father's death in 1890, Anna Luning Whittell inherited over $9 million, enabling her husband George to continue the creation of his own financial empire of real estate and railroads. A shrewd investor in his own right, the elder George Whittell was also cutthroat business manager and became a master of the 19th century's gilded art of manipulation.

    Shortly after George, Jr., was born his parents built a showplace mansion on San Francisco's Nob Hill. He attended high school there but following graduation he initially refused the college education his parents felt was so important. He left home instead to join the Barnum and Bailey Circus, without his parents' approval. While there George used the rather substantial allowance provided by his wealthy family to stage a series of trips to Africa to capture wild animals for the circus. It was during these experiences with the circus and in Africa that George developed a lifelong passion for wild animals, particularly the big cats. George, at the insistence of his mother, eventually returned to the rarified airs of Nob Hill after a few years.

    Upon Junior's return to San Francisco he continued a penchant for self-indulgence and began an unflattering habit of embarrassing his parents. In 1903, after George, Sr., and Anna had arranged a marriage for their twenty-one year old son to the daughter of another prominent San Francisco couple, he shocked them by eloping with a chorus girl. Whittell, Sr., felt compelled to pay sufficient money to county officials and the bride to annul the inappropriate match, silence all involved and clear the record. To the parents' dismay the cover-up failed and the incident exploded into a public scandal. George's taste for unsuitable women continued when he fell in love with dancer and actress Josephine Cunningham, a member of a well-known stage group. Despite his parents' disapproval and their best attempts to thwart the romance, George and Josie were married, again shocking San Francisco high society. A temporary halt to his allowance, his roving eye and reputation as a playboy soon brought his second marriage to an end. Josie Cunningham went on to appear in over 60 Hollywood movies as a character actress.

    In 1922, George's father died, leaving the 40-year old an inheritance worth roughly $30 million, the equivalent of well over $400 million in today's dollars. He managed his investments wisely, growing his fortune throughout the "Roaring Twenties". Perhaps his shrewdest move, however, was to liquidate about $50 million in stock holdings in early 1929, thereby insulating himself from (and, some say, helping precipitate) the crash of the stock market in October of that year. Following the economic collapse George was one of the wealthiest men in California.

    Also in 1929, George began a love affair with the fastest, most elegant passenger car of the day, the Duesenberg - ordering not one, but two, of the expensive, custom-built automobiles. He would eventually own five. In another pivotal event that year, George's ex-wife Josie gave him a lion cub, who he named Bill. The lion became George's closest friend and companion, traveling with the millionaire everywhere he went, including nightclubs and eventually the Thunderbird Lodge. Bill particularly enjoyed his rides in George's Murphy convertible roadster, perching his chin or paws on the windshield, mane flying in the breeze.

    In the early 1930's George formed a Nevada-based business to manage certain investments and established an official residence in Reno to help him avoid the rapidly increasing California income and estate taxes. There he heard of some property at Lake Tahoe being offered for sale by the Carson & Tahoe Lumber and Fluming Company and other landholders who had not fared well in the stock market crash. Eventually Whittell acquired from them over 40,000 acres of land on the Nevada side of the lake, including more than 25 miles of the shoreline.

    Though he originally planned several large developments at Lake Tahoe, including casinos at Sand Harbor and Zephyr Cove, his first priority was a summer retreat for himself. Construction of that lakefront estate, the Thunderbird Lodge, began in 1936 and was completed in 1939, along with the fabulous yacht, Thunderbird, commissioned by George specifically to get him to and from the Lodge. At that time in his life, however, George was growing somewhat reclusive and after spending several summers at Lake Tahoe, began to value his privacy more and more. The estate included a 600' long tunnel just to permit George to move from the Boathouse to the main residence without being seen. He abandoned plans for the commercial developments, withdrew from the Tahoe community and was rarely seen, preferring the seclusion of his miles of undeveloped shoreline. Elia, with whom his marriage had evolved into one of convenience, considered the Thunderbird Lodge far too rustic for her tastes. When George headed off to Tahoe from their Woodside estate for the summer, Elia would go to Paris to spend time with her friends and family.

    In his sixties, Whittell's fondness for animals increased and his toleration of people waned. From his private zoo at Woodside he brought his favorite four-legged friends to Tahoe for the summer, including Mingo, the elephant. He did maintain a small group of associates who joined him at the Thunderbird Lodge for high stakes card games and all-night drinking parties, but otherwise remained elusive, much preferring the companionship of his animals. The Card House, built especially for his poker games, hosted the likes of baseball legend Ty Cobb and purportedly fellow recluse Howard Hughes.

    In his seventies, Whittell suffered a broken leg when one of his lions fell on him and refused surgery to repair the severely fractured bone. As a result he spent the last decade of his life confined to a wheelchair. George and Elia would spend weekends together at Woodside when they were not in Tahoe or Paris, but the elderly tycoon preferred long hours at the Thunderbird Lodge simply gazing out at the lake or in the company of more than 40 birds, mostly chatty mynahs, in the aviary constructed on the front porch of the residence.

    Following his death on April 18, 1969 at the age of 87, George Whittell left quite a legacy, particularly in public lands at Lake Tahoe and bequests to animal rights organizations. His remains were interred in the family crypt at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma, California. Flamboyant to the end, Whittell requested that he be buried in his favorite ermine coat.

    Much of the above information is taken from the publication "Castle in the Sky", courtesy of Ronald and Susan James.

  • 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 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 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 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.

  • Several buildings on a six acre parcel comprise the Thunderbird Lodge National Historic Site. Below is a brief synopsis of six of these buildings. Much more information and a first-hand look can be obtained by taking a guided tour, or purchasing online the wonderfully informative book, "Castle in the Sky".

    George Whittell began construction of Thunderbird Lodge in 1936. The architect, Frederic DeLongchamps, was famous in his time and was the Nevada State Architect. The Carson City Capital and the Reno Courthouse are also examples of his work. Thunderbird Lodge was built to blend harmoniously with its surroundings and therefore is made of stone. It was Whittell's "summer cottage" on Lake Tahoe and consists of 2 master bedrooms, a great room complete with movie screen, 3 additional bedrooms for servants and a fully functional kitchen with the original appliances. Thunderbird Lodge represents a high level of expertise in building crafts, stone masonry, ironwork and woodwork.

    The Lighthouse addition was added by Jack Dreyfus, Jr. in 1985 after he acquired the property from Whittell. The addition is attached to the old Lodge and it added an additional master bedroom, 2 guest bedrooms and glass-enclosed bridge connecting to a 1000 square foot great room encompassing the original lighthouse that had been built during Whittell's era. Some of the best views of Lake Tahoe can be seen from the Lighthouse room. The Lighthouse room can also hold up to 120 people for an event and boasts an adjacent state-of-the-art kitchen for catering.

    The Card House is one of a few still existing card houses where the "boys of summer" would come to play cards, smoke cigars and enjoy the fine company of women. This is one of the most interesting interiors on the property, with a fireplace at either end, exposed stone walls, and exposed roof trusses with carved wood beams. The infamous tunnel is connected to the Card House with a most unusual entrance.

    The Boathouse is home to George Whittell's incredible yacht, Thunderbird. The Boathouse is a long, narrow, one-story structure measuring approximately 28 feet by 100 feet at the level of the lake and is the first steel structure at Lake Tahoe. It is entered from the tunnel or from an outside doorway. This is the second of two boathouses that were built on the property. The first boathouse was much smaller and built prior to the Thunderbird.

    The Cook and Butler's House is a one-story building across from the Lighthouse and housed Whittell's cook and butler. It features six dormers, two chimneys, and steeply pitched gable roofs along with the liveliest roofline of all the small houses. It has one of the best views of the Lake.

    The Elephant House is an unusual building. Precedents for the design of the Elephant House probably exist in zoos, although at first glance it looks like a garage. However, its purpose was highly unusual - it housed Whittell's elephant, Mingo. It is embellished inside and out with decorative ironwork, sconces between the doors in the front wall, and a fireplace screen (with elephant figures) inside.

    Much of the above information is taken from the publication "Castle in the Sky", courtesy of Ronald and Susan James.