Land swap celebration at Whittell |

Land swap celebration at Whittell

In 1996 the American Land Conservancy approached University of Nevada, Reno officials about the possibility of purchasing a 16,500-square-foot castle on Lake Tahoe’s east shore as part of big land swap that would put more than 140 acres of land and 1 mile of shoreline into the hands of the public.

It took three years and had many ups and downs, but the most expensive land swap in U.S. Forest Service history was finalized this year. And more than 100 people gathered at the historic Whittell mansion Monday to celebrate the culmination of all the efforts, and the future of an estate that has been owned by not one but two eccentric millionaires.

“I didn’t actually think it would take 3 1/2 years to get done,” said Ken Hunter, UNR’s vice president for research. “It was a long process and well worth the wait.”

Real estate magnate George Whittell owned nearly all of Tahoe’s east shore in the first half of the century, and he chose a rocky promontory south of Sand Harbor to build his summertime retreat – the three-story, medieval-style mansion called the Thunderbird Lodge.

Whittell kept wild animals on his property, including lions, tigers and a baby elephant; held late-night card games in one of the guest houses; and installed an elaborate security system to keep trespassers away.

After his death, mutual fund tycoon Jack Dreyfus bought the property and added to the mansion.

Three years ago, Dreyfus wanted to sell the property, and Del Webb Corp. bought it and 147 acres for $50 million with the intention of eventually selling the land to the U.S. Forest Service and the building to UNR. It has taken three years to finalize plans, but now the Forest Service owns 134 acres of the land, a newly formed, nonprofit organization called the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society owns the mansion and the six acres it sits on, and UNR now plans to renovate a part of the estate for a research facility.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., attended Monday’s event, saying that he thought all the hard work – which included a trip by him and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to Dreyfus’s office to “beg” for more time – was well worth the effort.

“(The effort at Tahoe) is something that’s important not only for the state of California and the state of Nevada, but it’s something that’s important for the rest of the country and the world,” said Reid, who organized the 1997 Lake Tahoe Presidential Forum.

UNR and its companion institution the Desert Research Institute are heavily involved in scientific work at Tahoe; however, neither has had, until now, actual access to the lake.

The University now plans to to use the 7,000-square-foot boathouse, the largest in Tahoe, to help its efforts.

Other plans for the estate – which includes several stone guest chalets, a 500-foot-long cavernous tunnel connecting the mansion to the boathouse and a lighthouse extending from the main lodge – include allowing public tours. However, upgrades, such as giving the estate water service, still need to be done before that can happen. Hunter estimated it would be late summer 2000 before the general public would be able to visit the Thunderbird Lodge.

Ed Gee, acting forest supervisor for Tahoe’s unit of the Forest Service, said he thought it was an important transaction because while about 80 percent of the land in the basin is publicly owned, only a small portion of that is lakefront property.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for the American public to gain access to a little bit more of Lake Tahoe, considering the public only has access to about 12 percent of the lake,” Gee said.

Del Webb swapped the 134 acres to the Forest Service for about 3,300 near Las Vegas. The value of that transaction was about $40 million, and the remaining $9.8 million owed to the land-exchange company will be paid back interest-free over the next three years.

Scott Higginson, vice president of government and public affairs for Del Webb, said the company was interested in not only gaining land for the exchange but also in seeing that the historic buildings and land were a benefit to the public.

“It was a win-win situation,” he said. “We acquired property in Las Vegas, but on the other side, we wanted to preserve the Thunderbird Lodge for the public.”

The Whittell property is different from another East Shore estate once belonging to Dreyfus. That transaction, dealing with a 11,000-square-foot mansion in Zephyr Cove, was completed the year before. Since the exchange has been shrouded in controversy, however, the fate of the Dreyfus mansion and caretaker’s cottage still has not been decided. For months, officials from the Forest Service and Park Cattle Co., who owns the buildings, have refused to speak publicly about negotiations under way.

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