For pretty much all of human civilization, the accumulation of tremendous wealth by an individual or family has typically resulted in a great house, perhaps even several. Gilded Age names such as Vanderbilt, Astor, du Pont, Hearst, and Carnegie are well-known for building houses of such splendor and scale that even today they boggle the mind.
The 20th- and 21st--century equivalent of such empires have produced some very different expressions well beyond beaux arts magnificence. There are over-the-top fantasies, such as Marjorie Merriwether Post’s Mar-a-Lago (now infamous for its conversion from Moorish private estate to faux-gilded Presidential getaway) and showy McMansions of any and all styles built in recent decades with fortunes from professional sports, entertainment, and tech. But then, in a class by itself, stands Sunnylands.
Built as a winter retreat for diplomat and philanthropist power couple Walter and Leonore Annenberg, Sunnylands represents a pinnacle of connoisseurship and gracious hospitality, as expressed through the lens of midcentury Southern Californian chic. The 25,000-square-foot, single-story house, set on 200 acres of valley floor in Rancho Mirage, is the antithesis of haute grandeur. It was completed in 1966, as a superb example of minimalist desert modern design by architect A. Quincy Jones, with Hollywood Regency interiors by William Haines and Ted Graber.
While Sunnylands may not be over-the-top aesthetically, its roster of distinguished guests is second to none: Frank Sinatra, Richard Nixon, and Queen Elizabeth are among those who dined, danced, golfed, or simply escaped the limelight in secluded splendor. Walter’s fortune was the result of a newspaper publishing empire that grew into a media powerhouse; Leonore was raised as Hollywood royalty. Together they went on to live a full half century, not only as husband and wife, but also as operatives to the rich and powerful, always in the pursuit of good. The causes that they championed (and that their children continue to support) include solving disparities of income, education, and opportunity; social justice; animal welfare, and environmental stewardship. Simply put, they cared deeply about others. Sunnylands stands as a testament to their extraordinary lives.
To Walter and Leonore personally, it represented so much more than an escape from the wicked winters of their primary Philadelphia home. They viewed the estate as an opportunity to their good fortune, while also fostering an environment for others to solve the world’s problems. They and their designers took this concept seriously in programming this desert home. The interior is decidedly open, airy and uplifting. Clean lines and vast expanses of glass create the perfect envelope for extraordinary works by Monet, Van Gogh, and Picasso. The furniture, all custom designed and slightly theatrical, is arranged strategically to create rooms without walls, with the exception of bedrooms, baths and staff spaces. This was the setting for everything, from the Annenbergs’ legendary New Year’s Eve parties, which attracted a who’s who of high society, to more casual “dinner and a movie” gatherings, or outings on the lush, private golf course.
When visiting, one cannot help but be overcome by the Annenberg’s spirit of gracious hospitality and their pursuit of global good. That spirit lives on through the plans that the couple made for Sunnylands following their deaths (they are both buried in a mausoleum on the grounds). They established a foundation to maintain the estate, selectively open it to the public, and, most importantly, make it available for all sitting Presidents of the United States and other dignitaries for high level summits and other gatherings as deemed worthy by the Annenberg Foundation at Sunnylands Trust. To date, eight US presidents have visited Sunnylands, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower, with the most recent being Barack Obama. A trip to Sunnylands, while truly a rare and moving experience, is absolutely accessible to everyone, not just Presidents, with proper planning through the website Sunnylands.org. It should not be missed.
Follow Natipernavigare on Instagram.