Sunnylands, former estate of billionaire couple Walter and Leonore Annenberg, comprises 200 acres in Rancho Mirage.

From Walter’s New York Times obituary: “The lavish way of life enjoyed by Mr. Annenberg and his wife, Leonore, was most visible at Sunnylands — completed in 1966 at a cost of $5 million — where the couple spent the winter months. 

“An airy, Astrodome-size extravaganza of glass and Mexican lava stone, pink marble floors and clustered plantings, the 32,000-square-foot house — surrounded by well-guarded fencing — sits on acres of rolling terrain. A well-primped, mock-English country landscape in the desert, with trees, hills, ponds, waterfalls, it has a nine-hole golf course and even an artificial swamp for the birds that Mr. Annenberg liked to watch.”

The Visitor Center, designed by LA architect Fred Fisher, is all glass, steel and sleek, low-slung furniture, with stupendous mountain views. Don’t miss the very cool bathrooms. There’s a café and a gift shop. There’s a continually changing exhibit or two. 

The first time I went this consisted of gifts the Annenbergs had received from various heads of state: a bully-mouthed bass from George Bush, a golf-themed lamp. 

Last June (the estate is closed during the hot summer months), it was “Carved Narrative,” showcasing the work of José and Tomás Chávez, artist brothers from Guanajuato, Mexico, who produced a half-scale version of their world-famous fountain, “Las Paraguas,” for the entry court of Sunnylands.   

The front garden and grounds, designed by The Office of James Burnett with horticultural consultant Mary Irish, are water-conserving, lovely, and free. I thoroughly enjoyed strolling about in the 96-degree sun and taking photos so bright and Disneyesque that they look like they’d been photoshopped.

The 25,000-square-foot house, designed by A. Quincy Jones and completed in 1966, is hidden away and costs 48 bucks to tour. Apparently tickets, released in monthly blocks at 9 a.m. Pacific time on the 15th day of the preceding month, sell out within minutes.

The locked gates opened. The golf cart-mobile proceeded. Right away I realized that, interestingly, the Visitor Center is way more mid-century modern in feel than the residence.

Which looks like a spaceship and has Portuguese pink marble floors, mint-green walls, and is furnished not in mid-century modern but rather a style called Hollywood Regency: all crystal chandeliers, enameled boxes, gilt-edged mirrors and tufted silk chairs in shades of sherbet — pale orange, raspberry.

Scattered pieces were to die for. A white William Haines biscuit-tufted récamier in the master bedroom. A series of Ming Dynasty funerary containers. A pair of cloisonné herons flanking the gas fireplace before which Frank and Barbara Sinatra were married and which has never, once, been lit.

In 1969, Walter was appointed ambassador to England by Richard Nixon, and in 1981 Lee, as she was known to her friends, was made Chief of Protocol by Ronald Reagan. Sunnylands began billing itself as the West Coast Camp David. The Reagans were close friends and frequent visitors.

Photos in the Room of Memories capture the vibe: the Queen of England, George and Barbara Bush, Ronnie lounging before the TV in a pair of espadrilles, inscribed: “Let’s forget this commie rubbish.”

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip visit Walter and Leonore Annenberg at Sunnylands, February 1983. (THE ANNENBERG RETREAT AT SUNNYLANDS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

“I like everything about the desert but the desert,” Leonore observed, which is kind of like saying, “I like everything about Catholicism but Christ.” Acres of bone-dry Coachella Valley desert sand were thus planted with water-guzzling grass and deciduous trees. The Annenbergs didn’t like waiting in line at the country club, so they built their own 9-hole course.

Nowadays, what with global warming and the Southern California drought, the foundation has become way more ecology-conscious. They’ve let much of the lawn go brown, eliminated some of the 14 man-made lakes, and installed a mile-and-a-half of water efficient irrigation tubing. 

As of 2013, they were trying out a new grass variant called Ultra-Dwarf Bermudagrass on the golf course that could be painted green in the winter.

What is the truth and what is a mirage?

Here’s one truth: The Annenbergs were philanthropists and art collectors who gave away over $2 billion in cash. In 2001, they established a trust providing that Sunnylands would henceforth be open to high-level national and world leaders for retreats. 

They graciously donated their collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings to the Met in New York. Their Annenberg Space for Photography in LA features beautifully curated exhibits about which I’ve written several times. 

They have opened their lovely Visitor Center, breathtaking views, and gorgeous desert garden to the public — also for free. 

Still, the whole enterprise struck me as a bit lonely.

Walter died in 2002; Leonore in 2009. True to themselves till the end, they wished to be buried apart from the hoi polloi, in their own private mausoleum.

I thought of my apartment back in Pasadena, one of eight in a subdivided three-story Craftsman, where, for better and worse, I live cheek-by-jowl with all manner of neighbors.

Gazing out over the San Jacinto Mountains, I wanted to say, “Walter! Leonore! After all you did for the world, you deserved more company than that.”


Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books. For more, visit heather-king.com.

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