Sunnylands: A Mid-Century Modern Classic In The California Desert

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“No one seems to be able to estimate it’s value,” wrote Scarlet Cheng of the L.A. Times. The renovation alone cost over $61 million. Eight U.S. Presidents have spent time at the 200 acres Sunnylands Estate, designed in 1966 by architect A. Quincy Jones, and home to Leonore and Walter Annenberg. Leonore was the niece of Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn, who raised her, and Walter was the TV Guide and Seventeen Magazine publishing magnate. Their 25,000-square foot house located in Rancho Mirage, California, included a private 9-hole golf course, 11 man-made lakes (with fish), and an Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art collection that later made it’s way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


The home features a pink pyramidal “Mayan” roof, walls of glass, and more than half an acre of living space with only one bedroom. Walter’s dressing room had a speaker system rigged to an area in the garden where birds sing each morning. While he prepared for the day, he could listen to these birds indoors. Leonore loved pink and admired it in the desert sunsets and mountains. The property is surrounded by a baby pink wall.


The Room of Memories, a type of den, is lined with photographs and memorabilia of the powerful and famous. Walter Annenberg was Ambassador to England when Richard Nixon was President of the United States, so the room contains over two dozen personalized Christmas cards from the Queen Mother. Leonore was Head of Protocol (Ambassador) under President Reagan. Frank and Barbara Sinatra were married on property, and the annual New Year’s Eve party photos reflect a show biz crowd of who’s who.


Guest quarters were added in 1977. Interiors were designed by William Haines and Ted Graber, as in the original home. The visitor’s center was added in 2001 by Fred Fisher Architects with interiors by Michael Smith (Barack & Michelle Obama also used him to decorate The White House).

The Annenbergs were among the 20th century’s most generous philanthropists. They gave over $500 million to public education. Their final gift was to donate their Sunnylands estate as a place for world leaders to “address serious issues facing the nation and the world community.” Today it is used for that purpose. In addition, it is open to the public to learn about its place in history. President Barack Obama made use of the property to meet with President Xi Jinping of China.


As I toured the estate, I was fascinated by the fact that the rest of the city had disappeared. I was told that Leonore wanted the property to become “an oasis in the middle of the desert, like living in an impressionist painting.” That had been accomplished. The design style was one of “hide and reveal” in both the architecture and the landscaping. I liked the partitioned walls with groupings of furniture, and the use of concrete and steel where form followed function. Marble, (which I loved) was combined with lava stone (from Mexico) which wasn’t my favorite.  I got a kick out of the needlepoint pillows in the guest bedrooms. They said, “Superior people never make long visits,” and “You’re going home Sunday, aren’t you?” I imagined Nancy Reagan chuckling as she picked up a pillow.


I was blown away by the china in the formal dining room. It was made by Royal Copenhagen, and called, Flora Danica. To my complete amazement, a bowl to hold ice cream costs $36,550. When the Queen of England saw the Annenberg’s china collection she said that her collection, was much smaller. Who washes this china and what if they break or chip it?


When Leonore lived on the property, she preferred “wall to wall grass.” She once said, “I like everything about the desert, except the desert.” Today the focus is on sustainability. Water conservation is a priority now with a new irrigation system, drought-resistant plants, mulch, and the replacement of all windows with sun resistant glass. I found the new landscaping to be quite beautiful and a needed addition in variation to the “all grass” theme. The rose garden, which features roses names after first ladies, was placed behind the home, in another “hide and reveal” location.


As the sun began to set and I left the desert for my drive back to Los Angeles, I reflected on the memories that happened behind that pink wall on Bob Hope Drive. Deals were done and business was had, but mostly it was just friends spending time with one another. Lazy days and warm nights by the pool, laughs and dances, and sun tans, and stories. In the end, isn’t that what it’s all really about?



Sunnylands is open to tour Thursdays through Sundays 8:30-4:00 by reservation. Click here: Sunnylands

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  1. Thank you for this, Robin! I wanted to tour it last month but didn’t have a chance. Howard actually went there for a symposium on international relations. Also, I thought Michael Smith was the interior designer to the White House. He’s Michelle’s bestie, and the husband of the former ambassador to Spain, whom we hung out with a bit in Madrid. I wonder if the Obama’s used more than one designer?

  2. Cami, thanks. I researched the interior design situation and found out that Michael Smith designed the Sunnyland’s Visitor’s Center. Thus, the confusion. Haines and Graber were in fact NOT the Obama’s designers.

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