Daily Dose of Beauty: Thunderbird Lodge

Thunderbird Lodge, Lake Tahoe

Thunderbird Lodge, Lake Tahoe

Daily Dose of Beauty: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together.
This series features travel photos and stories from my archives, shared with you as we shelter in place.

May 1st, 2020

Thunderbird Lodge, built between 1936 and 1939, remains one of Lake Tahoe’s most idyllic treasures. Located on the east shore of the lake in the daily gaze of the afternoon sun, this historic estate was first the home of George Whittell, Jr.

Whittell, a San Francisco native, was born into family wealth accumulated from the California gold rush, railroad development, real estate and the PG&E empire. After completing school, he joined the Barnum & Bailey Circus and traveled several times to Africa to capture animals for the company. Whittell never conformed to the life his family expected he would have, eventually marrying showgirl and actress Josephine Cunningham. The marriage didn’t last and Whittell’s interest in women, cars, boats and wild animals fueled his reputation as a playboy. Upon his father’s death, Whittell inherited a great fortune but was wiser with his money than other aspects of his life, selling significant stock holdings just prior to the market crash of 1929.

With his significant wealth, Whittell purchased 40,000 acres on the east shore of Lake Tahoe where he built his summer retreat, Thunderbird Lodge. He hosted poker parties in the card house on the estate and enjoyed the company of two wild animals – a lion named Bill and an elephant named Mingo.

Thunderbird Lodge, Lake Tahoe

Thunderbird Lodge, Lake Tahoe

In his later years Whittell became reclusive, even using a stone tunnel to move between the main house and the boat house where the Thunderbird Yacht still remains docked (these days only taking to the open water for private events, weddings and very special occasions at $5,000 per hour). Whittell spent his final years at the estate with his second wife Elia and passed away in 1969.

Aside from Whittell’s stories and reputation which linger even today, the land preservation around Thunderbird Lodge remains his most important legacy. A twenty+ mile span of Lake Tahoe’s east shoreline is protected and undeveloped thanks to Whittell’s early purchase of the property. Subsequent sales and exchanges of the land never led to its development and in 2009 the Thunderbird Preservation Society finally took ownership of the estate.

To George Whittell, Jr., Lake Tahoe offers its deepest, bluest gratitude.

A Lake Tahoe Sky

A Lake Tahoe Sky


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