LAKE TAHOE, Calif. —"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 did, however, build a summer home 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 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.
Although he is largely responsible for the unspoiled nature of Lake Tahoe's eastern shoreline, Whittell was less a conservationist than an eccentric with a desire for privacy. As a young man he 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.
Whittell, who lived from 1881 to 1969, was a playboy for a good part of his life and a recluse during his older years. In 1929, for reasons unclear, he 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.
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. 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."
Another mansion, 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. Vikingsholm, 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.
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.
With eight bedrooms and seven baths, not counting rooms elsewhere in the house 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.