This was the last of the large private landholdings on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe. Now covering 143 acres and nearly one mile of the shoreline, the estate encompassed more than 35,000 acres after George B. Whittell, Jr., heir to a Ѕаn Francisco banking and railroad fortune, purchased several large parcels of land in the 1930s. For a time he controlled eighteen miles of shoreline from Crystal Bay to Zephyr Cove. Most of that land is now part of Lake Tahoe State Park.
In 1936 Whittell hired Frederick J. DeLongchamps to design the seven major buildings of the Thunderbird Lodge, as the owner called it. Stonemasons, including Paiute and Washoe craftsmen trained at Carson City's Stewart Indian School, erected the granite Tudor Revival buildings on a wooded hillside facing the lake. All the structures have steeply pitched, bell-shaped, side-gabled roofs covered with wood shingles, tall end chimneys, and ornamentation of hand-wrought iron. Much of the ironwork depicts wildlife found around the lake. The grounds have been left natural except around the main house, where stone terraces, paths, and fountains cascade to a small cove. Other features include a large man-made waterfall, a lighthouse, a gazebo, and a dollhouse. The landscaping seems to have been of Whittell's design—a whimsical fantasy played out in stone.
At the end of 1997 the American Land Conservancy negotiated an agreement between the property's owner, the Del Webb Corporation; the federal government; and the University of Nevada, Reno. By selling public land in southern Nevada to developers, the federal government was able to purchase the estate, and the university purchased the buildings to use as a research and conference center. Thus the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe has gained 143 more acres of public land, protecting it from private development and preserving the Thunderbird.