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Sunnylands: Royals and presidents enjoyed this modernist masterpiece

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The 200-acre desert retreat is the subject of a new book

Master bedroom seating.
Photo by Ken Hayden. All images courtesy of Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, unless otherwise noted.

Sunnylands—the expansive Rancho Mirage winter retreat of wealthy philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg—has famously hosted presidents, heads of state, royals and celebrities since it was built in 1966.

Now it's hailed as a masterpiece of midcentury modernism, an exemplar of adaptive reuse and a pioneer in sustainable landscaping practices and green technologies. And since 2012 it's been open to you: You may visit Sunnylands for free Thursdays through Sundays. (Admission to the center and gardens is free, but taking a tour of the historic house costs $45).

To honor the estate's history and legacy, the Southern California chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians will host a free talk on Sunnylands by the estate’s director Janice Lyle at 2 p.m. Sunday at the main branch of the Santa Monica Public Library. The event is pegged to the publication of Lyle’s new book, Sunnylands: America's Midcentury Masterpiece.

Lyle described Sunnylands as “an estate that draws on the tradition of great country houses, but displays a 20th-century approach that is not traditional.”

“It reflects an interest in the latest architecture and a love of beautiful objects, as well as a willingness to avoid antique furniture and historic approaches to living,” she told Curbed. “Fluid in its spaces and open to the outdoors, the house encourages relaxation, intimacy, and a constant awareness of the constructed landscape.”

The living room of the historic house features many original furniture designs by interior designer William Haines. Photo by Ned Redway
The atrium of the historic house. The sculpture in the center of the atrium is an original casting of Eve, by Auguste Rodin, 1881. Photo by Graydon Wood
Photo by Ken Hayden

Top: The living room of the historic house features many original furniture designs by interior designer William Haines. Bottom left: The sculpture in the center of the atrium is an original casting of Eve, by Auguste Rodin, 1881. Bottom right: Room of Memories in the historic house.

The Annenbergs wanted a winter getaway in Southern California and commissioned Case Study architect A. Quincy Jones and interior designers William Haines and Ted Graber—noted for popularizing the Hollywood Regency style—in 1963 to create Sunnylands, which is named for the Annenberg ancestral home in Pennsylvania.

Official White House photos.

Top left: Walter and Lee Annenberg greet President and First Lady Reagan as they arrive via the Marine One helicopter on December 30, 1981. Top right: The Reagans dancing with members of a mariachi band. Bottom: The Reagans reclining on the patio.

Jones came up with the low-slung modernist design for the estate, which now encompasses a 25,000-square-foot main house, a nine-hole golf course, and 13 man-made lakes. At one time it was the largest house in Riverside County.

“A. Quincy Jones achieved a sense of openness and relaxed living with a surprising diagonal entrance, a central garden also on an oblique axis, partition walls that don’t rise to the ceiling, and an egg crate-coffered ceiling connecting the interior and exterior,” Lyle said. “Wide expanses of glass blur the line between indoors and outdoors, pulling the green landscape inside the residence.”

ThoughtCo described the harmony of exterior, interior and environment:

Architect A. Quincy Jones freely used aspects of Frank Lloyd Wright's organic architecture ideas in the design of Sunnylands. The low, rambling residence becomes integrated within the landscape of southern California—the desert, the San Jacinto Mountains. The pink stucco exterior walls are often faced with eleven-foot lava-stone interior walls from Mexico, used as a backdrop to the Annenberg's fine art collection.

The main house is notable for its pyramidal pink roof. Pink is a running motif: It's also the color of the mausoleum that enshrines the remains of the Annenbergs themselves, who died in the 2000s.

Exterior front view of historic house featuring entry court and Mexican column.
Photo by Ken Hayden

Wallis Annenberg, Walter's daughter from his first marriage, once described its feeling of "serenity, isolation, vastness of nature" amid the lush green lawns stretching into the desert, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The golf course features 850 olive trees but, according to the New York Times, only two palm trees. The palm trees were added, the story goes, after a visiting President Dwight D. Eisenhower lamented the absence of the region's signature trees. They're called the Eisenhower Palms.

George H.W. Bush fishing in one of the many well-stocked lakes at Sunnylands in February 1995.

The estate became more than just a winter home. Over the years Sunnylands—at the corner of Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope drives—played host not only to those two stars but also to sports luminaries such as Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino and Hollywood actors such as Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, and Ginger Rogers.

It also acquired the nickname the "Camp David of the West Coast," as the New York Times reported in 2012:

Ronald Reagan celebrated New Year’s Eve here 18 times, one of seven presidents who signed the Annenberg guest book. Richard M. Nixon retreated to Sunnylands after his resignation. It was the place to go for celebrities luxuriating in nearby Palm Springs: Frank Sinatra married his fourth wife here. Even Queen Elizabeth II was a regular.

President Barack Obama used Sunnylands as the venue for a summit with China's President Xi Jinping and another with Jordanian King Abdullah II in 2014.

In 2008, Leonore Annenberg began the process of transferring ownership of Sunnylands to the Annenberg Foundation and commissioned a 17,000-square-foot visitor center, to be called the Sunnylands Center & Gardens, on a 15-acre parcel adjacent to the estate.

Frederick Fisher & Partners designed it, and it was completed in 2011. Fisher references the A. Quincy Jones-designed historic house in his use of lava walls, trellises, and floor-to-ceiling glass, the center said. Michael Smith, who designed the interior of the Obama White House family quarters, handled the Sunnylands center interiors.

Separately, James Burnett designed a 9-acre garden comprising more than 53,000 arid-landscape plants and 1.25 miles of walking paths.

All told, the construction of the Sunnylands Center & Gardens and restoration of the historic house and grounds, including the golf course and nearby cottages, cost $60.5 million.

The Getty Conservation Institute hosted a panel in 2016 to celebrate the design, conservation, preservation and adaptive reuse of Sunnylands.

Sunnylands also won LEED Gold status; its website says the estate holds a solar farm with 864 solar collectors, an underground geothermal system that heats and cools Sunnylands Center, a new low-water-use irrigation system, and a sustainability team that insures the use of best practices and operates under a Green Vision statement.

Architectural historians have since paid tribute to the estate and its unique place in Southern California architecture.

The Society of Architectural Historians' page on A. Quincy Jones praised his vision, quoting an excerpt written by Ruth Weisberg: “A. Quincy Jones's place in architecture is assured by the humanism and beauty of his buildings, their environmental responsiveness, and the enduring significance of the reforms he set in motion."

The main house at Sunnylands under construction in the 1960s.

Sunnylands

37977 Bob Hope Dr., Rancho Mirage, CA