Last June, President Obama met with China’s President Xi Jinping in Rancho Mirage, just twenty minutes’ south of Palm Springs. But this wasn’t just any routine power summit. The two leaders casually strolled across a golf course in their shirt sleeves one-on-one, intimately discussing matters of state, with a private desert home in the background.
This isn’t just any desert home. The Sunnylands Estate
was the residence of pioneering media mogul Walter Annenberg (creator of TV Guide
magazine among many others) and his wife Leonore. Together, they were among the most generous philanthropists of the 20th Century, donating over $3 billion of their personal fortune to various causes and foundations.
The Annenbergs' most personal gift was opening up their very own 25,000 square-foot Rancho Mirage home both to the general public, as well as to world leaders for home-style summits. At Sunnylands, heads of state have the rare opprotunity to let their hair down and get to know each other in a relaxed and private setting. The Annenbergs’ vision was to make their estate “The Camp David of the West,” and if June’s U.S.-China summit was any sign, it has already become that.
You can walk in the footsteps of world leaders and other famous names from history when Sunnylands opens back up for public tours on September 1st (returning after its July and August summer closing). Ever since it opened for public tours in the spring of 2012, the lush estate has quickly become a must-do attraction for any visitor to the Palm Springs area. Sunnylands’ popularity for its guided 90-minute tours (operated Thursdays through Sundays) has made getting tickets a challenge. Tour tickets go on sale two weeks prior to the tour date, and are $35 per person (ages 10 and above only). And you’ll want to go to Sunnylands’ web site the minute tour tickets go on sale for the fall season this August 15th.
The Annenbergs’ stunning Midcentury Modern home is the center of the 200-acre Sunnylands Estate. Surrounded by a private 18-hole golf course with sweeping mountain views, the home was 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. The building’s color is pink, as per Mrs. Annenberg’s wish to match the sunset glow on nearby foothills.
The airy, open-plan home has been left exactly as when the Annenbergs lived here, with their personal furniture, objets d’art, and signed photographs from world leaders on the walls. 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 and one of the most important collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in the world. However, beautiful digitally-reproduced copies of the masterpieces now adorn the Sunnylands home, including 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)
. They each hang in the same spots on the Mexican lava stone walls as when the Annenbergs lived here.
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.
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
(below) constructed in a similar Midcentury Modern style as the Annenbergs’ original estate.
Following Mrs. Annenberg’s wishes, The Center is a relaxing yet tasteful 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 is closed to the public during for periodic high-level political and diplomatic retreats. 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 1st to June 30th.
The entrance to Sunnylands is at 37977 Bob Hope Drive in Rancho Mirage.
For more information go to www.sunnylands.org or call 760-328-2829.