Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thunderbird Lodge

The thirties were dynamic. Our culture was changing as people began to travel more. The movies made celebrities and millionaires over night. The wealthy were playing and the newspapers were telling us all about it. Lake Tahoe was already a vacation spot for west coast tourists  when, in 1926 the Cal Neva Hotel was built on the Nevada side of the California-Nevada state line. In 1936, Nevada legalized gambling making the Cal Neva a hot spot for partying.  This was the same year that George Whittell began building Thunderbird Lodge on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe.

Whittell originally planned to develop the 40,000 acres, but as he grew to love the beauty of the area and even more to love his privacy, he decided too keep all the land for himself. 
It was in a small cove, part of his 24 miles of Tahoe shoreline that Whittell chose to build his home, using stone masons from among the local Washoe Indian tribe located nearby.  

He used a master metal worker to design and craft all the metalwork of the lodge. 

This man showed himself to be an artist in the work he built for Thunderbird Lodge, from designs along the outside of each building to fireplace screens, each piece is unique

This fireplace screen is located in the opium den built off one of the lodge's stone tunnels.
(Be sure to click on it to enlarge the photo.)

Speaking of tunnels, George Whittell loved his tunnels.  A very private man, Whittell was also probably paranoid.  He had cameras mounted everywhere on his estate as well as listening devices hidden in many yard features.  He had a hidden passage way into a secret sleeping loft and tunnels under the house to take him to his boat or to what was called the card house, a separate stone building built for the many card games that took place at Thunderbird Lodge and lasted throughout the night.
These tunnels were dug then faced with stone, including high arched roofs.

Like the walls and roof, the floor of each tunnel was stone laid smooth.  Because we had a private tour, without a time limit, our group was allowed into each of the tunnels including their steep stairways and a couple leaking roofs.

We climbed down to the opium den then up a couple stories into the card house, quickly retreating back into the tunnel before the regular tour group entered house by way of the front door.

Our tunnel tour ended up in the boat house, home of The

Thunderbird, Whittell's boat which he has especially made, used a few times, became bored with it and stored it.  The luxurious wooden boat is installed with airplane engines, and steering on both sides of the boat so that Whittell, who was left-handed could steer the boat if he desired or could let the boat's captain take over.
The wooden hull and chrome  fixtures were polished to a mirrored shine. The Thunderbird was beautiful. a piece of art  equipped with super engines.

In order to go for a ride in this boat, be prepared to become a major donor to the non-profit organization that oversees the lodge.
Once Thunderbird Lodge was built, it became a central place for the party crowd who would boat over from the Cal Neva Hotel, drink, play cards and cavort with show girls then head back across the water to wherever they were staying for the night. Very few guests ever stayed overnight at the lodge for Whittell had only no real guest rooms. The only extra rooms were for the lodge's staff.  

At one time, as a young man, George Whittell had run away from his privileged life to work in a circus.  There he grew to love the animals.  As an
adult, he acquired a pet elephant and a young lion cub. Many times George and the then full grown male lion would drive around  Reno or San Francisco while the lion stuck his head out the window to catch the wind, his full mane blowing in the breeze.

The estate had a special building to house his exotic pets.
Many famous people spent time at the Thunderbird Lodge, including Frank Sinatra, who, at one time was an owner of the Cal Neva Hotel. Other visitors were Sammy Davis Junior and his family, Howard Hughes and many actors and actresses of the time.

The rich and famous ate and drank in the great hall. . .
swam in the cove . . .
Or visited outdoors along the dragon path or in a stone gazebo overlooking the lake.

Wherever they were, they probably had a good time, then said good-bye to their host and headed for home before morning.
As did we.

Along with our wonderful and knowledgeable tour guide, Tim, we loaded into our cars and said good-bye to the beautiful understated but luxurious stone Thunderbird Lodge.

       (Thanks, Mike)


ANNE G. said...

Wow...that's cool! Did you get a special tour or is this something anyone can arrange?

omatahoe said...

Anyone can join the tours.
Here's the link to the Thunderbird website with the tour information.
Tours run Spring to fall.
As a garden volunteer I feel privileged to spend time at the Lodge and pretend it's my home and garden for just a few hours each week.

Nellie from Beyond My Garden said...

Anyone can go on these tours. They are worth the cost. But we actually did get a special one from a friend who is a guide.