The first week of February kicks off sports’ shoulder season—approximately now until tourney time/spring training. To celebrate, DPB will release its Tahoe Trilogy, three stories about the current state of Lake Tahoe’s financial outlook, environmental health and planned development. Below, Part I.
By Andrew Pridgen
The Thunderbird Lodge, an East Shore manse with the James Bond villain underground boat entry, once played host to frequent guest Howard Hughes and his all-night dungeon “poker” parties staged next to a live lion trapped in what can only be described by today’s docents as an “unfinished wine cellar,” read: finished S&M chamber. The property has been batted around from private scoundrel to public trust for much of the last five decades and is the finest example of greed informing the botched handling of estate and land by both public and private entities.
Questioning the Thunderbird’s long-term viability as a nonprofit also has bearing on a trio of Tahoe’s landmark homes currently on the market. The property isn’t just a stone-and-timber reminder of days gone by but embodies the notion that Lake Tahoe is not and has never has been an egalitarian Sierra wonderland. Instead, Tahoe is a place where fortunes and their guardians go to convalesce.
What happens, then, when both big and long-time money starts to pull out en masse? Is it the signal of the end of something even bigger?
Before we answer that, let’s see what’s for sale
Larry Ruvo’s Glenbrook home (asking price: $98 million) is called, without nod to comedy or tragedy, Shakespeare Ranch. A pristine collection, if not an artifice. A 134-acre grouping of guest homes and barns on the shores of Tahoe’s first gated enclave.
Ruvo’s Nevada bloodlines are suggestive. His folks started The Venetian Restaurant in ‘60s Las Vegas (the inspiration for Nicky Santoro’s place in Scorsese’s Casino). Young Larry cut his teeth in various floor positions at the Sahara, Caesars and The Frontier; the latter is where he met Steve Wynn. The pair teamed up in the early ‘70s to start Southern Wine and Spirits of Nevada which has grown into a monopoly on booze supply for Las Vegas and much of the West.
In 1984, Ruvo bought a condo in Glenbrook and expanded his holdings to the parcel for sale today named after Shakespeare Rock which casts a shadow from 2,000 feet above.
The property includes 22 bedrooms, 27 bathrooms and 13 kitchens as well as an indoor pool house, greenhouse and underground wine cellar and tasting facilities. The compound and its 420 feet of shoreline has served as lakefront retreat of both the Bush and Clinton families.
Draw a line to the North Shore of the lake from the Ruvo estate to find a recently listed Tim Burton-meets-Hollywood Squares vision of a broken Rubik’s Cube in the form of a (price reduced!) $39.7 million IPES score nightmare designed by an architect from Tennessee and completed in 2010.
The glass-and-steel plantation belongs to a Georgia-based flooring heir who broke ground on it in 2005. A half decade later with the help of one lane-blocking crane, itself more of a landmark and less an eyesore than the finished residence, the see-through cell block was complete and cleared the path for the heir’s inevitable split with his wife. Soon, the for sale sign popped up on one of his most valuable if unused assets.
The Gehry knock-off has only four bedrooms and five baths in 8,694 square feet which also includes a Hilton Garden Inn-inspired gym and spa with three fireplaces that could warm the chambers of Dr. Evil’s own heart. Keep the Bugatti at sea level because the two-car garage is barely big enough for a Land Rover and a C-Class.
Two miles away on the eastern most point of Incline Village’s Lakeshore Boulevard is the Sierra Star, Tahoe’s third priciest listing on the market right now at $26.5 million. The former compound of Larry Ellison, yacht race organizer and dead-ringer for Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, three contiguous parcels on three acres equals 220 feet of lakefront frontage, a pier and a 12,000-square-foot garage for all the toys you can’t store at the Gonowabie Road estate. The Lakeshore compound features lots of interior appointments that seem to have 1998 on speed dial.
Where’s the fire…sale?
In all, the properties represent almost $170 million worth of real estate, and if you’re keeping track at home, less than 800 feet of lakefront, which is 240 meters or approximately five laps in the Incline Village rec center pool.
With the exception of the Ruvo homestead, there’s no real potential for a private entity to turn the homes the into hotel/event center and an airbnb listing won’t go very far to cover $250k/year in property taxes, much less the coughing up of nearly six figures monthly for mortgage payments.
The prospect of public ownership or even partnership is even more grim.
Since all three properties are on the Nevada side, it’s at least conceivable that Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act (BLM selling public lands in the Southern Nevada desert to developers and using the funds to purchase smaller parcels in Northern Nevada, see: the Thunderbird Lodge acquisition, below) could be used to turn the land back over to the people.
But those coffers have been pilfered for other pork projects. The last notable actual land acquisition, of Incline Lake in 2005, was touted by
pre-sex scandal then-U.S. senator from Nevada John Ensign as a community palazzo to be built out with indoor/outdoor pool, clubhouse, amphitheater, observatory, cross-country ski and snowshoe trails and stocked lake to be co-managed by the Incline Village General Improvement District.
The property and the remaining structures sit halfway up the Mount Rose Highway rotting and mired in red tape and lack of interest and/or funds from the community. Recently, the Forest Service announced its plans to return Incline Lake to a wetland, sparking a lawsuit from the state of Nevada Department of Wildlife, which wanted to re-fill the lake and stock it for fishing. NDOW lost its lawsuit last fall and may appeal.
Wetland restoration may be the only way to save face. Under the act, passed by Congress in 1998, more than 50,000 acres of public open space owned by the BLM near Vegas have been converted to suburban sprawl shrinking mightily since 2000 the desert tortoise (among other endangered or threatened species) habitat. It’s a vast expanse, but growing houses out of holes in the desert also means more water diversion, more traffic, more garbage and more…stucco.
Now, back to the Thunderbird
The lodge itself was erected in 1936 by Tahoe’s most notable clear cutter George Whittell, who got rich from daddy and remained so by strip mining the region of its lumber as rest of the country was turning out its pockets. He also liked to be referred to as the “Captain.” What a dick. For most of the 20th Century, Whittell owned pretty much the whole East Shore (approx. 20 miles of Nevada shoreline) and reserved the Thunderbird property as his personal oasis with which to turn out Prohibition-era cocaine-fueled or heroin-addled B-list ingenues.
In spite of the thwarted attempts to build out the property into a resort/casino, Whittell kept a Charles Montgomery Burnsean grasp on much of the property until his 1969 death. The lodge and the surrounding 10,000 acres was picked up by Jack Dreyfus of Dreyfus Investments in the early ‘70s who turned over the majority of the land to the Forest Service and Nevada State Parks.
In 1998, Del Webb Corporation, the developer of record for people whose time is nearly up, bought the Thunderbird and its 140 remaining private acres for $56 million because they wanted to raise like a desert flower one of their mega-retirement communities on BLM land (see: Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act, above).
Sure as shit, Del Webb got 4,000 Vegas acres in exchange for the 140 Thunderbird acres, which went to the Forest Service. The existing buildings were turned into a 501cs and the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society was formed by Pulte Homes after their acquisition of Del Webb (cue the winemaker dinners) in 2001. Pulte kicked off the nonprofit with a $9 million endowment but keeping the Thunderbird from dwindling and falling into disrepair has been as tenuous as the promise of the property’s eventual restoration.
The simultaneous selling off of Tahoe’s most noted estates as publicly accessible landmarks experience an advanced case of entropy is no coincidence. The Tahoe Basin is currently in a Dark Ages, almost to a point which belies logic and reason. At first it was a blip, an early century economic downturn which forced longtime residents back down the hill and landmarks like the Cal Neva to be auctioned off on courthouse steps.
But it’s gotten worse from there.
Global climate change is very real and very much banging on the Basin’s doorstep. Biologists and snow-making equipment can’t keep up. And the reality of Tahoe becoming a single-season mountain bike destination is ever-present.
Issues of no community as identifier within the daisy chain of surviving hamlets, grandiose public transportation and affordable housing gaps and zero stable economy are now bright as the sun which shines upon that “noble sheet of blue water” more than 320 days a year.
To put it mildly, this could be the end of Tahoe 1.0 and it’s starting, as all landslides do, from the top.