Sunnylands Opens to the Public

Office of James Burnett / The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands

Departures takes an inside look at the historic Annenberg estate in the California desert.

When Queen Elizabeth II visited Walter and Leonore Annenberg at Sunnylands, their sprawling winter retreat in Rancho Mirage, California, in 1983, she reportedly noted that they shared the same china pattern—Flora Danica, by Royal Copenhagen—but that she had fewer pieces. When Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first of seven U.S. presidents to visit the home, suggested trees be added to the golf course as hazards just after the house was built in 1966, the Annenbergs quickly planted what became known as the Eisenhower Palms.

Sunnylands was designed for the comfort of its guests as much as its owners: Walter, a media mogul (he founded TV Guide) and an American ambassador to the UK, and his wife, Leonore, who was head of protocol in the first Reagan administration. Fittingly, the house sits at the corner of Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra drives; both entertainers were frequent visitors, signing the guest book alongside foreign ministers and Supreme Court justices. (Sinatra married his fourth wife, Barbara Marx, in a lavish Sunnylands wedding in 1976.) Now this storied estate is preparing for a whole new generation of visitors—in March, Sunnylands will open to the public for the first time.

The house itself covers a staggering 25,000 square feet on one level and, during its heyday, kept a staff of 20 busy. Outside, 30 full-time gardeners maintained the golf course, tennis courts, 11 artificial lakes (all stocked for fishing) and vast arrays of flora, most of which required constant tending in the extreme desert heat. (According to meticulously maintained records, the original plantings included 7,114 oleanders.) Inside, the air-conditioning was set on high, not just for the comfort of guests but also for the safety of masterpieces by van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Cézanne, Renoir and Picasso. Along with the paintings were collections of sculpture (from Giacometti to Harry Bertoia) and decorative arts (Meissen china, Regency-period gilded silver, Ming dynasty vases). One wall was designed with niches for perhaps the finest Steuben glass collection in the world.

The building, by the great California architect A. Quincy Jones, is a modernist riff on Mayan themes, with a pink roof and accents of dark-brown Mexican lava stone. The interiors were the work of Hollywood decorators William Haines and Ted Graber, who sometimes appeared to be fighting the clean-lined modern architecture by installing so much lavish furniture, much of it by Haines himself (see “House of Haines”). Several modifications requested by Leonore over the years further clouded the clarity of the design: At one point she had the dining room moved from a section of the living room to an enclosed space because they couldn’t fit enough people in the original. Later, she had a silk-wallpapered room from the couple’s main residence near Philadelphia re-created at Sunnylands in a space that had contained an indoor pool. These details added a surprisingly lived-in quality to what could have been a pristine pillbox of a house.

But the couple’s target audience wasn’t architecture critics—it was the political elite. It was en route to Sunnylands that Richard Nixon learned that Gerald Ford had pardoned him for his Watergate-era crimes, and where Ronald Reagan penned the address to U.S. citizens proposing the detente with the Soviet Union. Nixon also wrote part of his 1974 State of the Union address here, and in 1990, George H.W. Bush hosted an official dinner at Sunnylands for Japanese prime minister Toshiki Kaifu.

Walter Annenberg died in 2002 and Leonore in 2009, and both are buried on the Sunnylands grounds. In their wills, they stipulated that the house would live on as a place for the influential to gather. When it opens this spring, Sunnylands will be an invitation-only retreat center, with 22 rooms in the main house and adjoining cottages. When it isn’t being used for conclaves, the house will be open to all for tours (November through July). And for most of the year (from September to July), a new visitor center, featuring exhibits about the house and well-chosen examples of its furniture and art, will serve as Sunnylands’ public face.

From the visitor center, designed by the estimable L.A. architecture firm Frederick Fisher and Partners on 15 acres of land adjacent to the property, a shuttle departs for the house. Guests are greeted by a massive bronze fountain that dramatically spouts water in the center of the circular driveway. Double doors lead to the famous pyramid-roofed atrium, where Rodin’s large statue of Eve presides. A walk-through is as much about history as decoration. “This is where the Reagans slept,” says Janice Lyle, director of the Sunnylands Center & Gardens, peeking into a yellow bedroom overlooking the pool. The Bushes, she adds, preferred the blue room in the guest wing extension.

Lyle is part of a team assembled by Leonore during the last years of her life to plan Sunnylands’ transformation, which cost $60 million. A lot of the changes are safety-related—nearly every inch of the 46-year-old house has been retrofitted for earthquakes, including a new roof and the installation of tempered glass windows. The interiors are being maintained almost exactly as they existed before, with a few minor updates that are in line with the “original design intent and its period of greatest cultural significance, the Reagan presidency,” Lyle says. The only room that has been completely untouched is the Annenbergs’ master bathroom (one of 23 in the house), which has been preserved as a kind of time capsule.

Many of the biggest changes to Sunnylands’ 200 acres are designed to reduce energy and water consumption. Sixty acres of turf have been replaced by tall grasses and mulch, and low-water-use desert plants fill the new nine-acre garden at the visitor center, which is powered by photovoltaic panels. Altogether, the estate aims to use about half as much electricity and half as much water as it did when the Annenbergs were alive. Leonore approved the modifications before she died, meeting with architect Fisher many times in the brightly colored game room. “She did things beautifully, in an old-school, formal way,” Fisher says. “No matter how hot it was in the desert, you always wore a suit and tie. And you made sure to be early.”

The one thing visitors to the house won’t see are the 53 great paintings the Annenbergs donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Instead, the walls will be hung with photoreproductions. That’s okay with Lyle, who says, “We aren’t driven by an art approach—we’re driven by history.”

Leonore herself lived out the last years of her life with the photoreproductions, and that too is part of the history of the house. As Walter reportedly quipped before that 1983 visit by the Queen of England, “We want to give her a chance to see how ordinary Americans live.”

Sunnylands Details

Sunnylands will be open to the public Thursdays through Sundays from November to July. For information on tours and retreats, go to sunnylands.org.

House of Haines

By the time the Annenbergs chose William Haines to design the interiors of Sunnylands, the former silent-film actor had made a name for himself decorating and creating furniture for stars (and friends) like Joan Crawford and Carole Lombard, inventing the style known as Hollywood Regency. Now his sleek and glamorous pieces are being rediscovered and reissued.

Vintage Furniture: This 1942 charcoal brown–lacquered leather and maple desk—there’s only one available—is on offer through antiques dealer Todd Merrill. $20,000; merrillantiques.com.

The Definitive Tome: Class Act: William Haines gives a rare glimpse into the lives of his famous clients, with more than 300 photos. $95; pointedleafpress.com.

A Reissued Classic: Original Brentwood chairs can be found in Sunnylands, and now new versions are available through William Haines Designs. $7,535; williamhaines.com.