Tahoe mansion needs donations to fix roof
The Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society needs some generous donors to come forward to finish fundraising to replace the roof on the historic lodge. And, unfortunately, they need that money – $50,000 – before the end of the year.
Bill Watson, executive director of the society, said the money is needed to match $50,000 offered by an anonymous donor. The funds are conditional on finding an equal amount to match it before Jan. 1 so that the donor can claim a tax break.
Watson said the society has already raised the $250,000 it expected the roofing project to cost. But he said the cost of re-roofing seven of the complex’s nine buildings came in about $100,000 higher than original estimates.
“First, the fire department really wanted to upgrade to a Class A roof,” he said.
Watson said the existing roof is the original cedar shake one put on in the late 1930s.
“And whenever you tear something like that open, you discover a few gremlins that add some extra cost,” he said.
Watson said the new grant and equal match will get the group to its total needs of $350,000.
He said the situation is becoming critical because of damage caused last winter by high winds. “We lost dozens of shakes with every storm.” According to Nevada Historic Preservation Officer Ron James, “if we can’t get these roofs replaced, we risk seeing one of Nevada’s best historic resources damaged.”
He said there is serious danger of water damage, particularly around the skylight cut into the roof in the 1970s.
The roofing project, according to James, will eliminate that skylight installed by financier Jack Dreyfus after he bought the mansion following George Whittell’s death in 1969.
Whittell, who at one point owned most of the Nevada side of the Tahoe Basin, built the lodge between 1936 and 1938, and lived in it during the summers until his death at age 87.
Watson said the Nevada Commission for Cultural Affairs provided $175,000 of the funding.
“Unfortunately, the state agreed to fund restoration of the interior before they would contribute to the roof, so by restoring the interior, we put the interior at risk by not putting the roof up,” he said.
He said he’s grateful for the contributions the society has received and hopeful some generous people will help match the $50,000. To contribute to the project, send checks to: Thunderbird Lodge, P.O. Box 6812, Incline Village, NV 89450.
THUNDERBIRD Lodge was Whittell’s playground
The spectacular Thunderbird Lodge near Incline Village was George Whittell’s fantasy playground for more than 30 summers.
According to Bill Watson, executive director of the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society, Whittell was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. “He dedicated himself to never working an honest day in his life and indulged every fantasy his imagination could come up with,” Watson said.
Nevada Historic Preservation Officer Ron James, who co-authored a book on the lodge with his wife, Susan, made a similar statement, describing Whittell as “Howard Hughes 20 years before Howard Hughes.”
“He was interested in fast cars, fast planes, fast boats and fast women,” James said.
His twin brother died at age 4, leaving him an only child. Thanks to his parents and grandparents, he inherited a huge chunk of the San Francisco peninsula and some $20 million.
Then, according to James, he pulled all of his money out of the stock market two months before the crash of 1929. Whether through brilliance or luck, James said, Whittell walked away with some $50 million when almost everyone else in the nation fell into the Great Depression.
James said Whittell bought 27 miles of the Nevada side of the Tahoe Basin “for a song.”
And on a point of land south of what is today Sand Harbor, he built his lodge. James said the original 8,000-square-foot structure was an international effort with Italian ironworkers, Norwegian carpenters, American Indian stone workers and Cornish miners, who built tunnels connecting the different buildings in the complex.
One of those tunnels – 600 feet long – led from the lodge to the boathouse constructed to hold the Thunderbird, one of the most spectacular boats on the lake even today, crafted of wood and some 55 feet long, powered by two World War II aircraft engines.
Several of the other buildings provided additional sleeping quarters for guests as well as staff. And an 8,000- to 10,000-square-foot Dreyfus addition was added in the 1970s after Whittell’s death in 1969 at age 87. The central lodge, built of stone, has seven bedrooms. Its huge great hall, with two fireplaces, was the scene of numerous parties over the years.
Watson said the lodge complex not only houses all of Whittell’s artifacts but a huge volume of records for the thousands of acres he once owned, the largest historical archive of information about the eastern shore of Tahoe.
The land is now owned by the U.S. Forest Service. The buildings themselves are owned by Pulte Homes, but Watson said his organization is transferring ownership to the preservation society. – Geoff Dornan