An absolute “must do” while attending the Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance, is to tour the fabulous Thunderbird Lodge, home of the equally fabulous Thunderbird yacht. I have seen the lodge twice and would not miss an opportunity to see it again.
George Whittell, Jr. was an eccentric San Francisco real estate magnate born in 1881, into great wealth. Whittell built the Tudor Revival summer estate known as the Thunderbird Lodge between 1936 and 1939, and commissioned the Thunderbird yacht in 1939. Located on Nevada’s eastern shore of Lake Tahoe, the historic site consists of a main lodge surrounded by three cottages, a card house, a boathouse, an elephant house, a lighthouse, three garages, and a gatehouse. This is not to mention a fully-functional opium den.
The lodge includes elaborate tree- and granite boulder-filled grounds with fountains, waterfalls, staircases, and paths. The land is forested with a heavy stand of mixed conifers that slopes to the shoreline and provides a panoramic view of the entire lake and the surrounding mountain ranges, including the Desolation Wilderness and the Mount Rose Wilderness. Its shoreline and creek outlets are a mixture of sandy beaches and massive granite boulders.
Numerous legends surround Whittell’s activities at this Lake Tahoe estate, including colorful parties and high-stakes gambling in the card house. His eccentricities extended to the collection of a veritable zoo of wild animals that made guest appearances at the Thunderbird Lodge each summer.
Whittell selected Lake Tahoe as the site of his new home because of the natural beauty and remote character of the alpine basin. He purchased vast amounts of east shore property in the Thirties. Though his original intention was large-scale development, by the time he finished building his estate, Whittell had become reclusive and preferred to enjoy his privacy instead.
George Whittell had a life-long fascination with the latest technology of the day, particularly that of aircraft, automobiles, and boats. Among his possessions were a DC-2, outfitted for his private use, a Grumman Goose seaplane, six of the most uncommon Duesenberg motorcars, a 145-foot pleasure yacht, and the legendary 55-foot Thunderbird speedboat. The latter boat is certainly one of the most unique and elegant wooden vessels crafted in the Twentieth century, and like his Duesenbergs, is as much a work of art as a means of transportation.
Commissioned by Whittell specifically for Lake Tahoe while he was building his estate there, the Thunderbird was designed by famed naval architect John L. Hacker and built by Huskins Boat Works in Bay City, Michigan. Enamored of the lines of his DC-2 aircraft, also named Thunderbird, the eccentric millionaire requested that the hull and cockpit of his new speedboat resemble the fuselage of his personal airplane.
Fashioned of double-planked mahogany and brushed stainless steel, the boat would enable Whittell to get around Lake Tahoe with unmatched speed and style. Originally outfitted with twin V-12, 550-hp Kermath engines, the vessel was capable of 60 knots. Completed at a cost of $87,000 (about $1.5 million in today’s dollars), Whittell took delivery of the Thunderbird in 1940, and it first crossed the mountain lake’s sparkling blue waters on July 14th of that year.
To accommodate the Thunderbird, its notoriously reclusive owner ordered the construction of a 100-foot long enclosed boathouse, connected to the main residence by a 600-foot tunnel, both blasted out of solid granite.
The aging playboy used the boat fairly extensively that summer and the next, retrieving friends from nearby communities and showgirls from the Cal-Neva casino for lavish parties at his estate. Following the entry of the U.S. into World War II, however, Whittell feared that his beloved yacht, or its engines, might be conscripted into military service, and so he hid it away in the lodge’s boathouse where it remained throughout the war.
After Whittell broke his hip late in life and refused surgery to repair the fracture, he ended up confined to a wheelchair and unable, or unwilling, to use the Thunderbird. Suspended by slings in the boathouse and mostly ignored following the summer of 1941, the yacht was rescued by casino magnate William F. Harrah, who purchased it from Whittell in 1962.
Harrah had the Thunderbird transported to his automobile collection restoration shop in Reno, Nevada, where he had it reverentially refurbished. His workmen added a matching, brushed stainless steel flying bridge and replaced the original Kermath engines (which when removed had only 83 original hours on them) with two V-12 Allison aircraft engines, each developing 1,100 horsepower. Harrah used it as his private yacht for the entertainment of his casino high-rollers and showroom headliners, such as Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, and Liza Minnelli, to name a few.
Thunderbird returned to Reno every winter where workers meticulously sanded the mahogany hull down to bare wood and refinished it with ten coats of varnish.
After a succession of owners, the yacht was recently transferred to the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society and is regarded as an historic landmark at-risk.
Thunderbird still makes regular appearances at the Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance and is a rather incredible site to see.