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Estate’s Sale, for $50 Million, Sets Record

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The highest price ever paid for a private home in the United States was recorded Monday with the $50-million sale of Thunderbird Lodge, the largest private estate at Lake Tahoe.

The previous U.S. high was $47.5 million paid by multimedia mogul David Geffen for the Jack L. Warner estate in Beverly Hills in 1990.

However, what is thought to be the world’s most expensive home sale took place in May when a prominent Hong Kong family sold its property on Victoria Peak for $94.17 million.

The Tahoe property was sold by Jack Dreyfus, 84, founder of the Dreyfus Fund and a Wall Street brokerage, to the Del Webb Corp., the developer of the Sun City communities, in a complicated land exchange.

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The title was transferred Monday through the American Land Conservancy to the Del Webb Conservation Holding Corp. The developer intends to trade the land to the Bureau of Land Management for property in the southwest corner of the Las Vegas Valley as a site for a third Sun City development in the area.

“We are already involved in a federal land exchange . . . acquiring 5,000 acres for a new master-planned community,” said Scott Higginson, Del Webb’s vice president of government and public affairs.

Higginson said the exchange allows Del Webb to acquire land that the developer could not buy.

“The only way to acquire federal lands in large tracts [in Las Vegas] is through land exchanges,” he said. “The federal government owns all the land around the city, and they don’t sell it.”

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After the Bureau of Land Management takes title, the land will be given to the U.S. Forest Service, sources said. Del Webb expects to sell the buildings to the University of Nevada at Reno.

“The university is starting its fund-raising activities now [to buy the buildings],” Higginson said. The school plans to use the buildings as a research and conference center, with docent-led tours of the house and grounds, he said.

The deal pleased the League to Save Lake Tahoe, a conservation group. “We’re delighted to see the property going into public hands,” league attorney Rochelle Nason said. “There is a tremendous shortage of shoreline land open to the public.”

In 1946, Dreyfus founded a brokerage house that became one of the 10 richest on Wall Street. He lives primarily in New York and has hardly visited his Tahoe estate since buying it in the early 1970s.

The 140-acre property includes a 16,000-square-foot compound with more than a mile of shoreline, including swimming lagoons and sandy beaches, on the Nevada side of the lake, just south of Incline Village.

During the 1980s, Dreyfus modernized the heating and electrical systems and built a wing, known as “the Lighthouse,” with a glass-walled entertainment room and master suite.

Much of the compound, known as “Whittell’s Castle,” dates back to the 1930s, when it was built as a summer retreat by George B. Whittell Jr., a San Francisco multimillionaire and heir to a gold rush fortune.

Whittell entertained lavishly there, longtime Tahoe residents said, hosting Howard Hughes and the shah of Iran, among others. But the wealthy San Franciscan became a quirky recluse after his housekeeper was killed in a car crash.

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Floodlights and searchlights bathed the grounds and shoreline at night, and loudspeakers warned off potential intruders. Whittell’s only friends, it seemed, were the lions, tigers and elephant he kept on the grounds.

When he died at age 87 in 1969, Whittell left much of his fortune to animal-welfare groups.

The three-story main lodge resembles a medieval French chateau with handwrought iron thunderbirds decorating the gables and a knotty pine great room with a 26-foot open-beamed ceiling.

Whittell also built four stone cottages, one just for playing cards. Beneath the card house, he built an authentic-looking dungeon, which can be entered through a 500-foot-long rock tunnel, which also leads to an unfinished indoor pool and to a boathouse that once held Whittell’s mahogany boat, the Thunderbird.

The 56-foot vessel, with twin 500-horsepower diesel engines, still can be seen on the lake from time to time, but is now under other ownership.

The 100-foot-long, bomb shelter-like boathouse, blasted out of solid rock, is expected to be used as a research center, to study the water of Lake Tahoe.

According to his realty broker, Shari Chase of Chase International at Lake Tahoe, Dreyfus decided to sell the estate to fund the medical foundation he formed while in his 40s to research the therapeutic uses of phenytoin, an anticonvulsant that he found relieved his depression.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Big Sales (Southland Edition, A15)

Here is a look at California homes that are among the most expensive ever sold:

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Year Purchaser Location Selling Price 1980 David Murdock Bel-Air $12.4 million 1984 Marvin Davis Beverly Hills area $20.25 million 1986 Jerry Perrenchio Bel-Air $13.5 million 1990 David Geffen Beverly Hills $47.5 million 1993 Ron Burkle Beverly Hills area $18 million 1997 Paul Allen Beverly Hills area $20 million

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