Road Trip: Lake Tahoe, Gardens and Estates

Lake Tahoe as seen from the Baldwin/Pope Estates

Every year toward the end of the summer, I grab an overnight bag and make the drive up to Lake Tahoe to spend the weekend with two of my girlfriends. One of my oldest friends that I met when we first moved to Sacramento almost 17 years ago, Diane, moved to Lake Tahoe about seven years ago. My other friend, Lori, and I make the drive to celebrate all of our summer birthdays together up at Diane's house on the hill above the lake.

This year, we decided to spend time exploring some of the old Lake Tahoe estates. Diane just so happens to be the Master Gardener for the Thunderbird Lodge Estate on the Eastern side of the lake. The estate was built by the infamous George Whittell, Jr.

The Gatehouse at Thunderbird Lodge

"George Whitell was known as one of the West Coast's most enigmatic residents. He was born in 1881 in San Francisco, the child of an economic elite made rich by the California Gold Rush. A teenager in 1900, he was positioned to enjoy the excitement of the dynamic region and new century, Fabulously wealthy, impulsive, and capricious, a youthful Whitell barreled through life at full throttle, collecting exotic animals, elegant automobiles and boats, beautiful women, and contentious lawsuits along the way. He was one of the more notorious playboys of California and Nevada, indulging in a succession of marriages and liaisons that fulfilled the region's gossip mills. A recluse in his later years, Whitell shunned publicity, and, in doing so, inspired speculation about his every move. By the tile of his death in 1969, he had become the stuff of legend." Castle in the Sky: George Whitell and the Thunderbird Lodge by Ronald M. and Susan A. James

Gatekeeper's Cottage

There are a number of cottages on the property which were used by guests and staff. All of the buildings are made of stone. They have been recently re-roofed with cedar shakes, required since they are historical landmarks. The fire risk seems huge, but apparently the shakes have been thoroughly treated.

The Cook and Butler's Cottage

Main House

There is a meandering stone walkway that leads through the massive granite boulders to all of the cottages and to the main house pictured above.

Great Room at the Thunderbird Lodge

The great room in the main house is completely paneled in pine in the Scandinavian style. It is interesting to see how differently things were built and lived in in the 20's and 30's. The bedrooms were quite small by today's standards, and the balcony railings were very low. But the lodge feeling is still quite grand.

Dining Area

Original Kitchen

I loved the kitchen, which is still in it's original condition. The marble topped table is wonderful. Isn't it amazing how many kitchens today still follow this design aesthetic?

Original Kitchen

The range is amazing and perfectly restored. And the linoleum on the floor is original to the period.

Bedroom of Whitell's last wife, Elia

Door hardware detail

Terraced gardens with the Main House in the backround

A view of the Main House through the gardens designed and maintained by Diane Weidinger and all of the other wonderful volunteers. The stone terracing is original to the site and quite extensive. George Whitell was very imaginative with his water features and man-made ponds and fountains. Sadly, many of them are no longer working because they leak into underground tunnels built for quick getaways to his boathouse, home to Whitell's famous racing yacht, the Thunderbird.

Thunderbird Gardens

My friend Diane Weidinger, Master Gardener for the Thunderbird Lodge. Diane and many volunteers work very hard to maintain and enhance the gardens on the estate. To learn more about their organization and events, click here.

Card House

One thing George Whitell is known for were the clandestine card games he would host in his Card House. He had an elaborate system of lights that would shine across the lake informing his buddies if there was a card game happening, if there were "ladies " available, or if his wife was home (so steer clear!). Quite a system.

Door of the Card House

Whitell was also known as "the Captain", so it is small wonder he had a captain's "bridge" where he switched those signal lights on and off.

The Gazebo and private beach

Us girls!

Lake Tahoe. The lake's clarity is legendary.

We also had the pleasure of visiting the Baldwin and Pope Estates in South Lake Tahoe:

The home of Dextra Baldwin, granddaughter of "Lucky" Baldwin, was built in 1921. Lucky Baldwin became a multimillionaire in Southern California through some "lucky" investments during the Gold Rush era, and created a bit of a financial legacy for his heirs. Lucky created a resort and casino in the South Lake Tahoe basin known as Tallac House. Many of the wealthy set built homes at Lake Tahoe where they could race boats, play tennis and socialize their summers away. Dextra was one such socialite. She raced boats, flew planes, and was an all around pampered adventuress.

Original Butler's Pantry

It is interesting how many kitchens today are modeled after the kitchen of the 20's with the white cabinetry and black and white accents.

Original Kitchen

The Baldwin House has been turned into an historical Museum, and the kitchen is the only space that still maintains the original character. The Pope Estate, however, is maintained as it was originally used as a home:

The Pope Estate, also known at the "Vatican Lodge" was originally built by George P. Tallant, son of Drury Tallant, founder of the Crocker Bank in 1894, passed to Lloyd Tevis, founder of Wells Fargo, then finally found it's way in 1920 to the hands of George A. Pope, who maintained one of the world's largest lumber and shipping companies. Quite a history for one house.

The Living Room

Dining Room

I love this wicker furniture painted green and the wall paper and matching drape fabric. Perfect for a summer home in the woods. Tours are conducted daily here. We missed it unfortunately, so please excuse my "peeping tom" photo quality! I was taking pictures through the windows.

There are many outbuildings on the estate including guest cottages, a boathouse, and a theater. There was also a separate cookhouse from the main house. Above is a detail of the eaves of the Newlywed Cottage. Many of these outbuildings were built in the late 1800's.

For more information about the Baldwin/Pope Estate, you can click here, here. There is a Great Gatsby weekend and many other events throughout the year, so check it out!

I wanted to show you my favorite nursery, which my friend and gardening guru, Diane turned me on to:

This is Aspen Hollow Landscape Nursery, creation of John Fellows, and set in a grove of evergreens in South Lake Tahoe. John has managed to create a wonderland of garden inspirations that never fails to get me thinking about spiffing up my poor unfinished yard.

There is not another place that has really enchanted me more lately. Perhaps it is the Fall season that is influencing me, but this is just the kind of place I love.

Looks like we took a little hike near a babbling brook, right? Guess again. This is just more of the magic at Aspen Hollow. This stream is man made and right in the middle of the nursery grounds. A piece of Heaven, truly.

Gerbera Daisy at Aspen Hollow

And so, my weekend drew to a close. But I have to leave you with these images of Diane's garden, which I had the pleasure of seeing all weekend. Jealous? Of course you are. So am I! But it is just the inspiration I need to get going on my own garden.

Thank you Diane for such a beautiful weekend! It has refreshed my soul.