“George Whittell,” the tour guide said, “was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.”
So 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.
Whittell, who lived from 1881-1969, may have been the richest American nobody ever heard of.
“He never became famous,” the tour guide added, “because he never really did anything.”
Whittell 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 lake’s shoreline.
And 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, California side is populated by homes and commercial property.
America’s 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.
One 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.
A 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, Florence Ehrman.
Although he is largely responsible for the unspoiled nature of Lake Tahoe’s eastern shoreline, to call 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 named Bill.
Whittell 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.
George 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.
That 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.
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 tour.)
In 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.
His 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 Francisco.
The 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.
Landscaping 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 cute.”
Whittell’s 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.
One 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 tunnel.
After 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.
Knight’s 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.
As 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.
One of Vikingsholm’s prominent features is the Scandinavian-style sod roofs that cover two wings of the courtyard.
Knight 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.
The 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 1923.
A 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, Mo., near what is now Old Warson Country Club.
The summer home conceived by 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.
Hellman 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.
The summer home was completed in 1902, and Hellman and his descendants used Pine Lodge from 1903-1965, when Hellman’s granddaughter sold it to the state of California. It is now part of Sugar Pine Point State Park.
With eight bedrooms and seven baths, not counting rooms 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.
IF YOU GO
THUNDERBIRD LODGE: Public tours are offered mid-May through October. Tickets are $39 for adults and $19 for children ages 6-11 (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 800-468-2463 or go to thunderbirdtahoe.org.
VIKINGSHOLM: 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 530-525-9527 to arrange for a ride down a service road to the home. For information on tours, call 530-583-9911; for information on Emerald Bay State Park or other state parks, call 530-525-7232 or go to sierrastateparks.org.
HELLMAN-EHRMAN MANSION: Tours are $10 and are offered daily in summer through September. For information on tours, call 530-583-9911. Turn off California state Route 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 visitor center.
TAHOE INFORMATION: tahoesouth.com, gotahoenorth.com