President Crowley's Chateau
By Vin Suprynowicz
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
Jack Dreyfus, the 83-year-old retired Wall Streeter who made his
fortune by establishing the mutual fund that bears his name, bought
the 10,400-acre Whittell Estate -- on the shore of Lake Tahoe, just
south of Incline Village -- from eccentric San Francisco millionaire
"Captain" George Whittell some 20 years back.
Since then, Mr. Dreyfus has sold off 98 percent of the property
to the government, in hopes it will be thus "preserved" from
What remains -- the 16,000-square-foot Thunderbird Lodge, built
in 1938 on the model of a French chateau, and a meager 140-acre seat
-- still remains the largest privately held parcel on the steep and
piney shores of the renowned emerald lake, which bestrides the
Nevada-California line in the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Mr. Dreyfus signed an option back in January, 1996 with the
American Land Conservancy, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group,
giving them first dibs on the $50 million site. But the option has
been extended four times, and is now due to expire at the end of this
year. Mr. Dreyfus says he is unlikely to extend the option again,
preferring to take the proceeds from a private sale.
Unable to fund the purchase on their own, the Land Conservancy
turned first to the U.S. Department of the Interior and Nevada's
congressional delegation, hoping federal parcels in Southern Nevada
could be sold and used to finance a government buyout of the Dreyfus
But -- in addition to the current moratorium on new BLM land
exchanges in Nevada -- federal officials who have toured the site all
declare that maintenance on the lodge and other buildings would make
such a federal purchase impractical.
"All the federal government is interested in is real estate,"
declared U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. "The buildings were of no use
Leaving aside the question of what legitimate use the federal
government would have for a prime piece of Tahoe lakeshore without
the buildings (a coastal gun emplacement, perhaps? A customs
station?), this sent the Land Conservancy folks, tapping their tin
cups, to the University of Nevada, Reno, where they finally appear to
have scared up some interest.
The University of California, Davis, you see, is currently
developing an environmental research center on the west shore of
the lake. Perhaps it would be too unkind to attribute to mere
professional jealousy the sudden interest of UNR president Joe
Crowley in therefore establishing such a "study center" of his own,
in a far grander location on the east shore.
Whatever the motivation, UNR currently entertains the notion of
raising some $3 million to buy the buildings on the site, and another
$1 million to develop its new cold-water "research facility,"
purportedly all through private donations.
UNR would then supposedly "provide public access to the property
and use the buildings to teach courses in ecology and conservation
But while it could hardly hurt the young folk in Ecology 101 to
row about for a week or so, taking a few depth soundings and
gathering up pollywogs, I find it hard to envision the administrators
in charge of maintaining this exclusive park-like setting welcoming
the public to come frolic on the beaches as they please.
Why do I suspect "public access" would be extremely limited,
while the summer weekends would be quickly booked with catered
weddings for the daughters of our fast-rising new state aristocracy
-- university administrators, wealthy alumni donors, and the
university's double-dipping patrons at the Legislature?
Besides, between $4 million and $50 million lies a sizeable gap,
to be filled one way or another out of the pockets of taxpayers, the
vast majority of whom would never even see the place.
If public funds are to go to the acquisition of this property, it
should become a state park, open to the largest possible number of
those who foot the bill.
But before we get that far, the notion that only collective
ownership by a government agency can "preserve" such a property is
The Whittell Estate has been in private hands for the vast
majority of the past century, yet has never been allowed to
degenerate into a tawdry carnival, or auto graveyard. On the other
hand, assets turned over to government agencies for "stewardship"
have often seen those very "stewards" become accomplices in their
"exploitation" -- witness the ongoing logging of remote federal
forests, only made financially feasible by the enthusiasm of the
Forest Service for cutting in roads at taxpayer expense.
That such a purchase should even be considered, even as our
lawmakers mouth hollow platitudes about "austerity,"
"belt-tightening," and the "reluctance" with which they're forced to
keep raising taxes, is absurd.
Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las
Vegas Review-Journal. The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at
http://www.nguworld.com/vindex/. The column is syndicated in the
United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box
4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.