George Whittell may have been the richest American nobody ever heard of.
So wealthy was his family that as a young man in San Francisco, he vowed he would never work a day in his life. Whittell, who lived from 1881 to 1969, then set about vigorously pursuing that goal.
“He never became famous because he never really did anything,” the tour guide said.
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 rest 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, or California, side is populated by homes and commercial property.
America’s largest alpine lake is generally thought of as a destination for camping, hiking, skiing, boating, bicycling, golf and dining. But there are historical attractions, too, in the form of mansions along the shore. Thunderbird Lodge and two mansions on the western side — Vikingsholm and the Hellman-Ehrman Mansion — tell a tale of how the fabulously wealthy spent their summers at the lake. All three homes are open for tours in the summer.
Although he is largely responsible for the unspoiled nature of Lake Tahoe’s eastern side, George Whittell was likely more interested in privacy than conservation on his 27 miles of shoreline. 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. When World War I began, George volunteered as an ambulance driver — one of his passions was driving fast cars. 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, which has been restored, 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 and construction of Thunderbird Lodge followed in the 1930s. 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.
Whittell’s desire for privacy is evidenced by nearly 600 feet of underground tunnel that allowed him to traverse the property without being seen.
The summer retreat of Lora J. Knight, 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 still remain in the home. When Knight was unable to acquire certain pieces on her visit to Scandinavia, she had craftsmen make exact reproductions.
One of Vikingsholm’s prominent features is the Scandinavian-style sod roofs that cover two wings of the courtyard.
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.
The summer home conceived by Isaias Hellman is the largest of these three mansions, comprising 11,703 square feet. 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 director, chairman or president of six banks on the West Coast.
The summer home was completed in 1902, and Hellman and his descendants used the home, called 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.