Card House is one of the many structures on the
grounds at Thunderbird Lodge in Lake Tahoe, Calif.
The lodge was built by George Whittell who owned a
large portion of the lake's eastern shore which has
alllowed it to remain rugged an pristine, unlike
TAHOE, Calif. — "George Whittell," the tour
guide said, "was born with a silver spoon in his
wealthy was Whittell’s family that as a young man in San
Francisco he vowed he would never work a day in his life.
He then set about vigorously pursuing that goal.
who lived from 1881 to 1969, may have been the richest
American nobody ever heard of.
never became famous," the tour guide added,
"because he never really did anything."
did, however, build a fabulous summer home that he named
Thunderbird Lodge. It sits in isolation on the eastern
shore of Lake Tahoe. That section of the lake is rugged
and pristine, in contrast to much of the rest of the lake’s
therein lies Whittell’s legacy. Because of him, most of
the eastern, or Nevada, side of Lake Tahoe is undeveloped,
while much of the western, or California, side is
populated by homes and commercial property.
largest alpine lake is generally thought of as a sun and
fun destination for such things as camping, hiking,
skiing, boating, bicycling, golf and dining. Visitors to
Lake Tahoe often may not be aware of historical
attractions such as Thunderbird Lodge and two mansions on
the western side that tell a tale of how the fabulously
wealthy spent their summers at Tahoe. All three homes are
open for tours in the summer.
of those mansions, named Vikingsholm, was the summer
retreat of Lora J. Knight from 1929 until her death in
1945, when her wealth was estimated at $43 million. Just
before building Vikingsholm, she had lived in St. Louis
during the 1920s with her second husband, St. Louis
stockbroker Harry French Knight. Lora Knight, a native of
Galena, Ill., befriended Charles Lindbergh during that
time and helped finance his flight across the Atlantic.
third historic home along the shore of Lake Tahoe is Pine
Lodge, also known as the Hellman-Ehrman Mansion. It was
the summer home of Isaias Hellman, a Bavaria native who
made a fortune in the banking business in San Francisco.
The home later came under the stewardship of his daughter,
he is largely responsible for the unspoiled nature of Lake
Tahoe’s eastern shoreline, to call George Whittell a
conservationist might be going too far. His failure to
allow development on the 27 miles of shoreline that he
bought more likely was a result of wanting privacy. He was
an eccentric sort who as a young man frustrated his
parents at every turn, running off to join the circus and
later eloping with a showgirl rather than marry the
socialite they had arranged for him. During his stint in
the circus he developed a love for wild animals and for
many years cherished the companionship of a pet lion he
was a playboy for a good part of his life and a recluse
during his older years. His grandparents had struck it
rich during the California gold rush of the 1850s, not by
mining but through investments and real estate. Whittell’s
father eventually took over the financial empire and
expected young George to attain a proper education, marry
the right woman and succeed him in the banking business.
failed in most regards to meet those expectations. After
his parents got his marriage to the showgirl annulled and
paid her off, George disappointed them further by marrying
a New York actress.
marriage was short-lived, and when World War I began,
George volunteered as an ambulance driver — one of his
passions was driving fast cars. His parents purchased for
him the rank of captain, and for the rest of his life he
preferred being addressed as Capt. Whittell.
was wounded during the war and fell in love with a
Parisian nurse, Elia Pascal. They married in 1919. The
union lasted until Whittell’s death, although in later
years Elia preferred returning to Paris over summering at
Thunderbird Lodge, leaving Whittell free to host wild
parties and squire casino showgirls around the lake in his
speedy, 55-foot mahogany yacht, Thunderbird. (The yacht
has been restored and is taken out on the lake on special
occasions; it resides in a boathouse that is part of the
1929, for reasons unclear, Whittell liquidated $50 million
in stocks just before the infamous stock-market crash,
assuring that his wealth would not be depleted.
purchase of 27 miles of Lake Tahoe shoreline followed in
the 1930s, as well as construction of Thunderbird Lodge.
By establishing a residence in Nevada, Whittell
successfully dodged the higher taxes in California, where
he spent the bulk of each year at his estate south of San
lodge was modest in size for a man of his means, but
"the castle," with its steep-pitched roofs,
remains an architectural marvel, a product of American
Indian stone masons, Italian ironworkers and Norwegian
woodworkers. Five small cottages are situated nearby —
each a miniature version of the main house.
includes waterfalls, pools and streams connected by
winding stone pathways and flourishes such as a stone
shamrock and other whimsical designs that, according to
the tour guide, "serve no purpose other than looking
disdain for unwanted visitors and curiosity seekers is
reflected by an exterior siren that he blared to scare
them away. His desire for privacy is evidenced by nearly
600 feet of underground tunnel that allowed him to
traverse the property without being seen.
tunnel led to the cottage known as the Card House, where
Whittell indulged his passion for card games and alcohol.
Among his guests for card games were sports legends Joe
Louis, Jack Dempsey and Ty Cobb, and tens of thousands of
dollars were known to change hands. If Whittell grew tired
of the game, he could excuse himself and enter the
bathroom, then disappear through a hidden door in the
shower and escape back to the main lodge through the
Whittell’s death, the lodge and some of the property was
purchased by Wall Street investor Jack Dreyfus Jr.
Although Dreyfus used the lodge only for entertaining and
never lived there, he had an addition built onto the
lodge, and that space now is used for weddings and special
events. Control of the lodge is in the hands of the
Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society.
summer retreat, built in 1929, sits at the head of Emerald
Bay, perhaps Lake Tahoe’s most scenic spot. Although she
was of English descent, Knight wanted the home to look
Scandinavian because the bay reminded her of fjords she
had seen in Norway.
part of their research, she and her nephew, a Swedish
architect who designed Vikingsholm, traveled to Sweden,
Finland, Norway and Denmark. On that trip, Knight
purchased antiques that are preserved in the home today.
When Knight was unable to acquire certain pieces on her
visit to Scandinavia, she had craftsmen make exact
reproductions of them.
of Vikingsholm’s prominent features is the
Scandinavian-style sod roofs that cover two wings of the
also owned tiny Fannette Island, which sits in the middle
of Emerald Bay. A small stone teahouse that she had
constructed on its crest was rarely used because of the
difficulty in getting to it, but despite some vandalism,
it has survived to this day.
daughter of a corporate lawyer, Knight acquired the bulk
of her wealth through her first husband, James Henry
Moore, who, with his brother, had controlling interest in
several major companies. Moore was involved in the
founding of U.S. Steel and in a merger of bakeries that
formed a company later to be known as Nabisco. He died in
short-lived marriage to Harry French Knight followed. He
was a vice president of A.G. Edwards & Sons and
president of the St. Louis Flying Club. They lived in
Ladue near what is now Old Warson Country Club.
summer home conceived by Isaias Hellman is the largest of
these three mansions, consisting of 11,703 square feet and
three stories. Its wide front porch faces Lake Tahoe just
beyond a lawn shaded by towering pines.
was born in Bavaria in 1842 and followed his dreams to
California at age 17. Within a year he had purchased the
Nevada Bank of San Francisco. At his death in 1920 at age
77, he was president of Wells Fargo Nevada National Bank
and director, chairman or president of five other banks on
the West Coast.
summer home was completed in 1902, and Hellman and his
descendants used Pine Lodge from 1903 to 1965, when
Hellman’s granddaughter sold it to the state of
California. It is now part of Sugar Pine Point State Park.
eight bedrooms and seven baths, not counting rooms
elsewhere in the house for staff workers, Pine Lodge could
accommodate numerous guests. Those guests were treated
quite well — a different maid was assigned to each of
the eight bedrooms.
LODGE: Public tours are offered mid-May through October.
Tickets are $39 for adults and $19 for children 6 to 11
(no children under age 6). Tours include a walk through
George Whittell’s tunnel to the Card House and
Boathouse, where Whittell’s 55-foot mahogany yacht is
housed. Proceeds from the tour go toward maintaining and
restoring the property and yacht. Call 1-800-468-2463) or
go to thunderbirdtahoe.org.
Tours are $10 and are offered throughout the day from
Memorial Day weekend through the end of September.
However, to get to Vikingsholm, visitors must park in a
lot and walk a mile down a steep trail. The walk back up
is strenuous. People with a disability placard may call
1-530-525-9527 to arrange for a ride down a service road
to the home. For information on tours, call
1-530-583-9911; for information on Emerald Bay State Park
or other state parks, call 1-530-525-7232 or go to
MANSION: Tours are $10 and are offered daily in summer
through September. For information on tours, call
1-530-583-9911. Turn off California Highway 89 at Sugar
Pine Point State Park and continue into the parking area.
Watch for a sign that says "mansion tours" with
an arrow. Tickets may be purchased at the visitors center.
INFORMATION: tahoesouth.com, GoTahoeNorth.com