In this new year of 2020, Lake Tahoe is known the world over as a dream destination by both one-time visitors and second-home owners whose families have been vacationing here for generations. According to the Tahoe Fund, there are approximately 40,000 permanent residents around the lake, and an average of 20 million tourists per year. But at the start of the 1900s, Lake Tahoe real estate was still up for grabs, first with a push toward preserving the region as public land and then, in a sudden about-face, when land opened up for rampant development that continues today.
Three attempts were made to designate the Basin as a national park in the 1910s, which, like Yosemite or Yellowstone, would have made Tahoe public for all. Congressman Joseph Knowland proposed the aforementioned bills — first in 1912, then in 1913 and 1918. This would have included all of the Tahoe Basin as protected land (with the exception of preexisting land claims), but the bills were shot down each time because of agricultural and commercial interests.
After the three failed endeavors, the movement to preserve Tahoe was dead in the water. Then, strikingly, the prevailing winds changed direction. With newfound wealth bubbling over in the 1920s, Lake Tahoe found itself on the open market. It was the beginning of what would become continual real estate developments and the decade when Tahoe officially lost its uninhabited wilderness to human expansion.
Roads and houses were built, communities sprouted up along the shore, tourism became an entrenched industry, and Tahoe took root as the domain of the uber-wealthy.
The winds of change started when two leading real estate firms from San Francisco purchased 44,000 acres surrounding Lake Tahoe in 1912. (For reference, the entire Lake Tahoe Basin is 205,000 acres.) A May 18, 1912 newspaper headline in The San Francisco Call questioned, “Scene on Shore of Lake Tahoe, Which Local Realty Firm is Undertaking to Develop on Gigantic Plan?” And, as if they could see the future, the subheading declared, “Great Project Designed to Draw Millions to State.”
Real estate moguls from San Francisco chomped at the bit to start developing lakeside property. The same article stated, “nowhere in the world is there a summer climate of such perfection nor a wonderland to compare with this lake amid the high Sierras.” The real estate companies had a vision of what Tahoe could become, and they set out to make it a reality. The article also boasted of the beautiful summer homes that had already popped up from the wealthy few, as well as the surrounding attractions.
In stride with their California neighbors, The Carson City Daily Appeal advertised, “You Can Outfit in Carson for Your Lake Tahoe Trip,” at the top of their papers in the summer of 1921.
The prosperous Twenties paved a road to Tahoe tourism, attracting some of the wealthiest in the country and giving rise to three private showcase estates that now function as attractions themselves.
George Whittell, a playboy who inherited money from his real estate mogul grandparents during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, was one of those lucky few. Known for hosting wild parties filled with casino showgirls and zooming around the lake in his 55-foot wooden yacht called The Thunderbird, Whittell led a life of luxury. Just before the infamous stock-market crash of 1929, he liquidated $50 million, securing his wealth in the nearing time of destitution that was to become the Great Depression.
In the early 1930s, Whittell purchased 27 miles of Lake Tahoe shoreline on the Nevada side — avoiding California property taxes — where he constructed the Thunderbird Lodge. The elite architecture of “the castle,” which is still preserved on the East Shore of Lake Tahoe, incorporates Italian ironworkers, Norwegian woodworkers, and Native American stone masons. There are also five additional guest houses modeled after the peaked-roof stature of the main house. Also on the premises were pools, waterfalls, and streams, all connected by intricate stone paths. Similar architecture and intricate landscaping are found in today’s lakefront mansions of Incline Village.
In 1928, Lora J. Knight bought 240 acres of land from the William Henry Armstrong family for $250,000, settling on Emerald Bay’s nestled cove as her property of choice. Knight’s first husband, James Henry Moore, was a successful businessman in the world of steel before becoming part of a merger of bakeries that formed the company later known as Nabisco. Moore died in 1923, leaving a large fortune to his widowed wife.
Her mansion, the renowned Vikingsholm, was built in 1929 and modeled after architecture she saw while traveling in Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. Vikingsholm features Scandinavian-style sod roofs and designs derived from 11th-century wooden churches in Norway and was furnished with antique treasures from Knight’s travels abroad. She also owned the small island in the middle of Emerald Bay, Fannette Island, where she built a miniature stone castle called the “Tea House.” Fannette Island continues to be a summer attraction for kayakers, paddle boarders, jet skiers, and swimmers alike.
In 1923, John Drum, president of the American Trust Company, which later merged into Wells Fargo Bank, purchased a lakefront property on Sugar Pine Point. The main building of the home was built with Port Orford Cedar logs from Oregon, which were known for being rot-resistant, to hopefully endure through decades of Sierra Nevada weather. The private estate has 10 acres of lakeshore property and includes three guest cottages, a modern four-bedroom lakefront home, a boat house, a tennis court, and two piers.
If Whittell’s Thunderbird was in the East Egg, Knight’s Vikingsholm and Drum’s estate were surely in the West Egg. Was there a blinking green light and a woman named Daisy in the mix? The jury’s still out, Old Sport.
Main Image Caption: WHITTELL’S THUNDERBIRD LODGE: George Whittell’s “castle,” located on the east shore of Lake Tahoe. Photo courtesy Thunderbird Lake Tahoe