Modernism Week Cheat Sheet: Tours of the Historic Annenberg Estate at Sunnylands

Posted By: Matt Link Wednesday, February 13, 2013
An estimated 35,000 people flocked to Palm Springs for 2012’s Modernism Week, and this year’s event is poised to break that record attendance. From February 14th to 24th, over 100 events celebrating Mid-Century Modern architecture and style will occur all over Palm Springs. Most Modernism Week events sell out before their date, so if you happen to miss the extremely popular Tours of the Historic Annenberg Estate at Sunnylands, here’s your essential absentee cheat sheet of the event.


Walter Annenberg was a pioneering media mogul who created TV Guide and Seventeen magazine among many others. Along with his wife Leonore, Walter donated over $3 billion to various causes and foundations, becoming one of the most generous philanthropists of the 20th Century. “The Annenbergs lived their lives to give back,” says Geoffrey Cowan, president of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, which continues to donate today.


The couple’s most personal gift was their very own 25,000 square-foot home in Rancho Mirage (a 20-minute drive south of Palm Springs). The stunning Mid-Century Modern home is part of a lush 200-acre estate called Sunnylands. From 1966 to 2009, Sunnylands was the Annenberg family’s desert home, intended for informal living and comfort, not for projecting an image of power or wealth. As with most Midcentury Modern buildings, the estate’s architectural structure is exposed instead of hidden, with trellises, steel beams, and coffered concrete all evident. Sunnylands architect A. Quincy Jones was known for his “statement roofs,” and an iconic flattened pyramid tops the estate. It was colored pink as per Mrs. Annenberg’s wish to match the sunset glow on nearby foothills. The house has been left exactly as when the Annenbergs lived here, with their personal furniture, art, and signed photographs from world leaders on the walls. The estate has been retrofitted with state-of-the-art green technology.

Sunnylands opened for public guided tours in the spring of 2012, and has quickly become a must-do attraction for any visitor to the Palm Springs area.


When welcoming Queen Elizabeth on one of her many visits to his home, Walter Annenberg cheekily announced she was going to “see how ordinary Americans live.” The Sunnylands’ guest list included seven U.S. Presidents, the British Royal Family, and Hollywood icons like Sammy Davis, Jr., Jimmy Stewart, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and many others. Frank Sinatra was married here, and Bob Hope was a frequent guest on the Annenbergs' private 18-hole golf course surrounding the house and its sweeping views of the mountains and desert. Ronald Reagan watched Gorbachev's televised speech dissolving the Soviet Union at Sunnylands, and Richard Nixon retreated to the Annenberg estate after Gerald Ford pardoned him.


Upon his death is 2002, Mr. Annenberg donated his $1 billion-plus art collection to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the single largest gifts to any museum. The Annenberg Collection is one of the most important collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in the world, and now anchors the Met’s 19th century European collection. However, beautiful digitally-reproduced copies of the masterpieces now adorn their Sunnylands home. The reproductions of Renior’s The Daughters of Catulle Mendès and Reclining Nude, Cézanne’s Seated Peasant, Monet’s Camille Monet on a Garden Bench, and Picasso’s At the Lapin Agile (Harlequin With a Glass) hang in the same spots on the home’s Mexican lava stone walls as when the Annenbergs lived here. Mr. Annenberg stated his collecting philosophy as, “Never buy four C-plus paintings when you can buy one A.” The Annenbergs also collected Chinese porcelain, Meissen vases, Flora Danica china, Steuben glass, and English silver-gilt objects, all on display on a rotating basis.


Sunnylands’ grounds include a double-looping, 18-hole par 72 course and nine acres of desert gardens with 1.25 miles of walking paths that meander through more than 53,000 individual plants and 50 arid species. Following Mrs. Annenberg’s vision, the gardens were designed for environmental sensitivity. The drought-tolerant and native plants produce water savings of more than one million gallons per year. The grounds also include the brand new 17,000 square-foot Sunnylands Center constructed in a similar Midcentury Modern style as the Annenbergs’ original estate. Following Mrs. Annenberg’s wishes, the Center is a relaxing and airy space with the atmosphere of a grand living room, and it’s free to the public. Landscape architect James Burnett used one of the Annenberg’s paintings, Vincent van Gogh’s A Wheatfield With Cypresses, as visual inspiration for the Center’s grand garden and mountain views. The Center’s interior features original sculpture pieces, (including works by Auguste Rodin and Jean Arp) as well as a public indoor/outdoor cafe, interactive information center, and gift store.


Public tours of the Annenberg home are offered Thursdays through Sundays, except in July and August. The home will also be used as a “Camp David of the West” for periodic high-level political and diplomatic retreats, and will be closed to the public during these events.

Visits to the historic home are by guided 90-minute tours only. All tours require advance reservations as space is extremely limited. Tickets go on sale two weeks prior to the tour date, and are $35 per person (ages 10 and above only).

The Sunnylands Center & Gardens is free and open to the public during the daytime on Thursdays through Sundays from September 1 to June 30 .

The entrance to Sunnylands is at 37977 Bob Hope Drive in Rancho Mirage. For more information go to or call 760-328-2829.


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