Estate of the Union

Carved out of undeveloped desert in Rancho Mirage, Sunnylands is a midcentury vision for the modern day

Written by Jenn Thornton | Photography Courtesy of The Annenberg Foundation Trust At Sunnylands

Completed in 1966 for ambassadors and philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg, Sunnylands references monumental American ambition, if not America itself: it’s enormous, individualistic and self-governing, a grand place for statesmanship. It’s also a magnum opus of midcentury modern architecture by A. Quincy Jones that has watched the power elite, including eight American presidents, the queen of England, and entertainers Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, waltz through the door.

But at mid-twentieth-century, Sunnylands was not yet considered the manifestation of the Annenbergs’ sincere effort to advance the greater good—nor was it called the “West Coast Camp David.” It was, merely, a winter home—albeit substantial, for a substantially established couple. At the time of their wedding in 1951, Walter Annenberg, the scion of a publishing empire, was well on his way to becoming a media mogul, while Leonore, raised in Hollywood and the niece of Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn, was a Stanford graduate. Together, they were the ultimate power couple, united in their interests, which included supporting education, collecting art and giving back. Among the Annenbergs’ numerous bequeaths is Sunnylands.

At the time Sunnylands was constructed, the Annenbergs were typical of perhaps just one thing: American thinking. In the early ‘60s, they were “optimistic about the role of America in the world” and believed “that natural resources were generally limitless,” notes Janice Lyle, Ph.D., director of Sunnylands Center & Gardens, and author of Sunnylands: America’s Midcentury Masterpiece. “Therefore, their initial concept of building a park-like setting in the middle of a dry desert did not seem daunting to them.” They saw in the 200 acres of earth a tremendous blank canvas for a 25,000-square-foot residence and lush landscape of 11 lakes, 6,000 trees and a nine-hole golf course.

Though Sunnylands draws on the tradition of all great country houses, it diverges in its non-traditional 20th century approach. “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,” explains Lyle, noting the home’s spatial fluidity and its openness to the exterior. “The home encourages relaxation, intimacy, and a constant awareness of the constructed landscape.” A diagonal entrance, central garden on an oblique axis, partition walls that don’t rise to the ceiling, wide expanses of glass and an egg crate-coffered ceiling connecting the interior and exterior are among its signatures. Inside are furnishings from William Haines, a range of decorative arts and digital reproductions of the Annenbergs’ momentous collection of priceless Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings (the originals are now ensconced at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Art—so integral to the Annenbergs’ lives—is at the center of the experience at Sunnylands.

In later years, after Walter served as Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s in London, but before Leonore’s tenure as Chief of Protocol under President Reagan, the Annenbergs determined Sunnylands should play a more prominent role in “cultural diplomacy.” Thus began a series of physical alterations to the house. Among those that resulted was the Room of Memories, a uniquely intimate space for rare and autographed books, photographs, correspondence, awards, and memorabilia that tell the story of the Annenberg family—the room’s curators to this day.

The story is one of legacy that Sunnylands Center & Gardens and the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, which runs the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands (a think tank for world leaders), continue. Of the Annenbergs’ many gifts to the country, Sunnylands remains of inestimable value—a true national treasure.







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