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CAL NEVA COMEBACK

AFTER HOSTING CELEBRITIES GALORE IN ITS HEYDAY, THE ICONIC CAL NEVA RESORT IS POISED FOR A REBOOT 

Famous or not, most people who have visited the Cal Neva Resort Hotel Spa & Casino have a story to share about the historic property that straddles the state line on Lake Tahoe’s North Shore. In mentioning the name, their eyes light up as they recall fond memories of seeing a concert in its Celebrity Room, a midcentury-modern addition by Frank Sinatra when he was part owner, or taking their picture in front of the Googie-era sign to emulate the Rat Pack’s photograph. 

Cal Neva Lodge pool, 1959, photo by Slim Aarons

Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. represent just the tip of the iceberg on a very long list of boldface names including actors, singers and Mafioso who have slept, gambled and caroused there since the initial lodge opened in 1926. (Two of its most famous guests were Clara Bow who ran up a sizable gambling debt and Marilyn Monroe who died the week after staying in one of its little white cottages.) Despite its former cachet and prime location, the place fell into disrepair following a succession of failed investors and has lain vacant for years. 

With so much heritage and emotion at stake, it made front-page news when tech billionaire Larry Ellison bought Cal Neva for nearly $36 million last year. 

After much hearsay about its fate, The Hollywood Reporter got the scoop on his plans. It should come as no surprise that he’s partnering again with the Nobu Hospitality Group, the golden goose behind Ellison’s California properties including Nobu Hotel in Palo Alto, and Nobu Ryokan, a smaller, Japanese-style inn in Malibu.

The Nobu trio’s most famous face is Robert De Niro, who founded the hot brand with chef Nobu Matsuhisa and Meir Teper, a film producer who has a taste for the hotel business these days. Matsuhisa is also involved with a restaurant at Ellison’s Four Seasons Resort Lanai in Hawaii.  


Marilyn Monroe talks with Frank Sinatra, while an unidentified man looks on at the Cal Neva Lodge. 1959. Courtesy North Lake Tahoe Resort Association

According to the Cal Neva project’s outreach representative, they’ll create a similar five-star resort at Crystal Bay to be in balance with the surrounding environment and community. 

The proposal calls for renovating an existing 10-story hotel tower that dates to the late Sixties and replacing the lodge and casino, home of the charming Indian Room with a massive fireplace made of local granite, with new construction. 

Another advantage of having Ellison as the current steward is that he has deep enough pockets to get the job done—anyone who visited the resort during its final years can attest it’s a major undertaking. 

Unfortunately for history and architecture buffs, many of the original buildings have been razed and the interiors altered beginning with a devastating fire in 1937. The Googie sign and Nevada-side cabins, whose rustic stonework was built by Native Americans from the Stewart Indian School in Carson City, Nev., are gone.

Courtesy North Lake Tahoe Resort Association

In a totally bizarre move, a previous owner filled in the crystal blue, kidney-shaped pool. Bisected by the state line, which was literally drawn across for dramatic flair, the pool became an instant attraction and photo opp. One would hope Ellison recreates the unique amenity in the Instagram age. 

Nancy Stromswold, archive manager for North Lake Tahoe Historical Society, hopes he doesn’t demolish the Celebrity Room. After sitting through her daughter’s performances there, she praises its impeccable acoustics. 

“Sinatra designed it so he could stand in the middle of the stage and only have to whisper to be heard in every corner of the room,” she said, offering another nugget about Ol’ Blue Eyes. “Right at the loading dock at the backstage door, there were two private parking spaces stenciled with his name.” 

In addition to costing tens of millions of dollars, the project involves several government agencies due to its location in California and Nevada. It’s an incredibly rare situation that requires great thought and a meeting of the minds. Though a completion date hasn’t been announced, local residents and luxury travelers can only dream that it will be returned to its former glory when it reopens for a new century. 

Progress and news are available online at thecalneva.com

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