TAHOE NUGGET #261: THUNDERBIRD LODGE: TAHOE’S UNIQUE ESTATE
This weekend I was invited by members of the Tahoe Rotary Yacht Club to join them for a dinner and tour at the legendary Thunderbird Lodge on Lake Tahoe’s east shore. Docents led us through the labyrinth that was the estate of enigmatic gambling playboy George Whittell and shared stories of the wild and crazy life of this Tahoe millionaire.
Born in San Francisco on September 28, 1881, George and his twin brother Nicholas were the only children of George and Anna Whittell who controlled a banking and real estate fortune. Nick died at the age of four, leaving George, or Junior as his family called him, as the sole heir to the family’s millions. Junior knew early in life that he wasn’t going to be a respectable businessman like his father and he charted out a wild lifestyle that would distress his parents and shock their staid upper-crust friends.
As a rebellious teenager, Junior fell in love with circus animals and ended up following the Barnum and Bailey Circus around the United States. In this photo he is using his mouth to feed treats to his pet lion Bill.
George Whittell attended a slew of colleges and universities, but never graduated from any of them. When he was 22, he married a young chorus girl, but his father quickly paid to have the union annulled. Shortly after, Whittell eloped with Josie Cunningham, a dancer from a popular British stage show. His parents failed to break up this relationship, but Cunningham herself filed for divorce just two years later.
Painting of Whittell’s wife Elia Pascal, a Parisian debutante, with one of their pet cats. George and Elia were married to each other from 1919 until Whittell’s death in 1969, but due to his sexual escapades they rarely lived in the same house and never had children.
In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Whittell’s father paid the Italian government to commission Junior as an army captain, a title he would use the rest of his life. He did drive an ambulance during the war and was slightly injured.
Captain Whittell was fortunate to be born into wealth, but he had a lucky streak too. Just months before 1929 stock market crash, he liquidated $50 million in stocks.
Partial view of the main room in the relatively small Thunderbird Lodge taken from the second floor where George and his wife Elia had separate bedrooms.
When the country entered the Great Depression and millions of Americans were forced into poverty, Whittell was loaded with money. To protect his wealth he moved his residency to Nevada to escape state income taxes. In Nevada, Whittell financed a partnership to purchase and develop about 29 miles of spectacular real estate on Tahoe’s east shore.
Photograph of George Whittell with one of his Greyhound dogs in his bedroom. Off to the right is a doorway leading to a spiral staircase that climbs to a “crow’s nest” where George did most of his sleeping.
Whittell had planned to develop large resorts and hotels at both Sand Harbor and Zephyr Cove. Fortunately, his vision to build the Sand Harbor Hotel and Casino, complete with 200 cottages and an aerial tram to the proposed Reno Ski Bowl (Mt. Rose) ski resort, never made it past the drawing board.
Stories abound about Whittell’s all-night poker games in the Thunderbird Lodge’s Card House with celebrities like baseball great Ty Cobb who had a cabin at nearby Cave Rock. Whittell gambled in the extreme. My wife Nora’s father Tom watched “The Captain” bet thousands of dollars a hand at Tahoe casinos during the 1930s. The money he lost over time to Joe King enabled the developer to purchase what is now Kings Beach on Tahoe’s north shore.
The aborted developments spared Sand Harbor and Zephyr Cove, two of the most beautiful stretches of shoreline at Lake Tahoe. In 1938, Whittell forced his partners out and took control of the 40,000 acres. Whittell reportedly paid about $2 million for the land at a time when lakefront property cost only $12 per foot.
Originally this room was supposed to be the boathouse, but the yacht that Whittell had built for it was much too big. (The rear wall of glass faces directly out onto the lake.) So Whittell decided to convert it into an indoor swimming pool, but while it was under construction one of the workers fell off the ladder, broke his neck and died. Whittell, a superstitious man, ordered the room left exactly like when the accident occurred and it hasn’t been touched since.
Whittell then retained Reno architect Frederic DeLongchamps to build a residence on Tahoe’s east shore. The opulent Thunderbird Lodge features intricate architectural details created by skilled Native American stonemasons from Carson City’s Stewart Indian School, Italian ironworkers and Scandinavian wood craftsmen.
It took 100 workers more than two years to build the three-story French chateau and other stone structures that overlook the lake’s famed blue water.
Part of the 600-foot-long tunnel that winds its way underneath the estate. The tunnel leads to many side rooms and eventually into the second boathouse built to accommodate Whittell’s new speedboat. The tunnel was constructed by Indian stonemasons and the rock work is amazingly smooth. The metal tracks in the floor allowed employees to push small mining carts loaded with household supplies to the main buildings.
Whittell also hired legendary marine architect John Hacker to design a unique Tahoe yacht. Sleek and stylish, the Thunderbird was launched in 1939. Powered by dual 550-horsepower aircraft engines, the boat could reach 70 mph. Tricked out with an art-deco stainless steel superstructure, the yacht is considered a “one of a kind masterpiece.”
Perhaps the most visually stunning of all the wooden vessels still plying Tahoe water is the Thunderbird, a 1939 55-foot Hacker-Craft launched from Tahoe City on July 14, 1940.
Parties at the somewhat reclusive Captain’s “summer playpen” were relatively rare, but they were extravagant. Old timers still talk about Whittell’s weeklong affairs with scantily clad showgirls from Tahoe casinos.
Each summer Whittell flew in his pet lion named Bill. He brought in a polar bear one year and another time flew in a baby elephant named Mingo. The polar bear didn’t stay long and after a week at high altitude Mingo had to be returned to California.
Each fireplace in the house has a unique fire screen design. This is from one of the small rooms off of the tunnel. Rumors for the purpose of this room abounded until scientific testing of residue on the rock walls indicated that it was an opium den.
Over the years Whittell spent much of his time with Mae Mullhogen, his business secretary and favorite mistress. In 1954 she died in a car crash after a shopping trip to Kings Beach. Grief-stricken, Whittell became more reclusive.
Guests with the Tahoe Rotary Club were encouraged to take their dinner plates and wine to any location on the estate. A small group of us found our way to this charming gazebo with remarkable views of Lake Tahoe.
In 1958 the state of Nevada negotiated an agreement with Whittell to establish Sand Harbor State Park, the first state park on the Nevada shore. George resisted additional efforts by the Nevada legislature, but the old captain was finally forced to sell his remaining acreage to the state which banned commercial development and protected the shoreline for public enjoyment.
Sunset view from the Thunderbird Lodge gazebo.
Longtime Rotarian and skipper Mickey Daniels transported about 35 guests aboard his commercial fishing vessel Big Mack II.