Often called “the West Coast Camp David,” Sunnylands, the estate of billionaire Walter and Leonore Annenberg, should be on every Southern California visitor’s list of ‘things to see.’ Open to the public as of March 2012, it has quickly become one of Rancho Mirage’s most popular attractions. The 200-acre property encompasses a desert botanical garden, a visitors center with art gallery, gift shop, café and the 25,000 sq. ft. historic home.
From the mid 1960s until Mrs. Annenberg’s death in 2009, Sunnylands was a private home. Walter, who died in 2002, made his millions in the publishing industry, and later became an ambassador to the United Kingdom. He and his wife hosted Hollywood celebrities, several U.S. presidents and foreign diplomats at their desert modernist home, designed in the 1960s by architect A. Quincy Jones. Even today, Sunnylands continues to be the site of many political retreats and diplomatic summits. A recent one brought politicians and government officials to discuss U.S.-Mexico relations.
Now the public may tour the home on a limited basis. Tickets are only released on the first and 15th of each month except July 15 and August 1st at a cost of $35 per person. Because tickets sell out quickly, and well in advance, we weren’t able to tour the home on our visit, but we did have the chance to see the gardens and visitors center. These are open without a charge. Hours are Thursdays through Sundays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
A bright, spacious lobby area greets guests as they enter the visitors center. It’s evident in the lobby, a fusion of sunlight and building materials was carefully mapped out by architects. They followed the vision by the Annenbergs who sought to allow as much sunlight as much as possible throughout their home. This has extended to the design of the visitors center.
At Sunnylands, the use of sunlight comprises so much more than simple daylight or sunshine. Architects were clearly ‘leading edge’ with their innovative use of sustainability practices, eco-friendly design and construction. Sunlight becomes an artistic medium for aesthetic expression.
Arizonans who make the three to four hour drive to Sunnylands from Arizona for either a long day trip or as part of a weekend getaway to the Palm Springs-Coachella Valley area, should allow extra time to walk the well-planned and manicured gardens. Those who are frequent visitors at Desert Botanical Gardens and Boyce Thompson Arboretum already know this: you don’t want to zip along through these nature paths. That’s why there are so many benches — to stop and take it all in. And there are a multitude of images to absorb at every turn.
After a tour of the gardens, peruse the lobby with its wide spans of plate glass. I recommend watching the two short videos describing the Annenbergs’ lives, their vision for their estate and their legacy. It’s fascinating to learn how the house design and construction evolved. What’s most notable about the Annenbergs is not their home or their beautiful property — it’s their efforts in philanthropy. The Annenbergs, through the Annenberg Foundation, have made very generous gifts in the areas of education, arts and healthcare. Plus, their vision to establish their estate as a site for stabilizing international relations continues.
Sunnylands visitors will see a sampling of the Annenberg’s art collections in the center galleries. Many famous artists from a variety of periods are represented. Consider ending a visit to Sunnylands with a browse through the gift shop or a relaxing lunch at the café’s outdoor patio.