PLACE IN THE SUN
A PUBLISHING MAGNATE’S WINTER RETREAT IN CALIFORNIA SOON BECAME NOT JUST A PLAYGROUND FOR THE ROYAL, RICH AND GLAMOROUS, BUT THE UNOFFICIAL CAMP DAVID OF THE WEST, WHERE PRESIDENTS AND OTHER WORLD LEADERS COULD PAUSE TO PONDER THE MOST PRESSING QUESTIONS
There is really nothing else like Sunnylands in all of the United States of America. The pink-hued home built in 1966 in Rancho Mirage, California, for the billionaire Philadelphia publishing magnate and philanthropist Walter Annenberg and his wife Leonore, has hosted eight US presidents. The first was Dwight D. Eisenhower; Barack Obama stayed eight times; Ronald and Nancy Reagan celebrated New Year’s Eve here with legendary parties 18 times; it’s where Richard Nixon (who made Annenberg ambassador to Britain from 1969 to 1974) sought refuge when he resigned in disgrace in August 1974. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip have stayed here, as have various other European royals. Margaret Thatcher, Princess Grace of Monaco, Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gregory Peck all enjoyed the hospitality that the Annenbergs were famous for.
Sunnylands was the couple’s much loved winter retreat, but it wasn’t just the stream of high-profile visitors that made it so extraordinary. Designed by the prominent southern Californian architect A. Quincy Jones, with interiors by movie star-turned-designer William Haines, the house is the pinnacle of midcentury Modernist style. It is one of the great monumental American family houses, alongside The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II; Kykuit in Westchester, New York, by John D. Rockefeller; and the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, by William Randolph Hearst.
Sunnylands, however, stands out from the rest and occupies a unique place in the nation’s social, political and architectural history. As Bob Colacello wrote in Vanity Fair in 2012: “It’s hard to think of another American private house where so many important people came together to socialise, exchange ideas, and influence one another in a totally secluded and relaxed atmosphere. Or, for that matter, of another American couple who possessed the wealth, connections and will to make that happen.”
Walter Annenberg died in 2002 and Leonore in 2009, but the couple had established a trust in 2001 that would safeguard the next, and arguably most ambitious, phase of life at Sunnylands.
The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, as it is now known, was endowed with $US300 million by the Annenbergs along with a mission statement detailing the types of programs for which the retreat may be used. Since 2012 the house, a 20-minute drive from Palm Springs, has been open to the public through guided tours (they run from September to May and book out well in advance). It was also envisioned that the estate be available as a sanctuary for generations of high-level national and world leaders seeking the privacy and “the pause” needed for solving the most pressing national and international issues. The Annenbergs’ wish was that the house would become a sort of Camp David (the official country retreat of the US president in Maryland, 100km northwest of Washington DC) of the West.
David Lane, a former high level diplomat and staffer in the Clinton and Obama administrations, has been president of the Annenberg Foundation Trust since September last year. The trust’s board is limited to Walter and Leonore’s descendants – each had two children each from previous marriages, but none together – but it is the president of the trust who is charged with driving Sunnylands’ ambitious vision.
“When the first president of Sunnlyands, Geoffrey Cowan, came to see me I was working in the White House in the Obama administration, and he said, ‘We want to make this estate the Camp David of the West’. I don’t think I actually said ‘fat chance’ but I did say that I couldn’t imagine the president of the United States using this place in California,” says Lane. It didn’t take long for him to be proved wrong. “I went off to Italy for almost five years [as US ambassador to the United Nations Agencies in Rome] and while I was gone President Obama used Sunnylands multiple times to host major summits, and a few other times as well, so the place was kind of on the map as somewhere presidents and secretaries of state can convene around a foreign policy purpose. So I thought it had great potential to bring people together across ideological boundaries, especially at a time when our political system so desperately needs a reset.”
Obama was a prolific user of Sunnylands, perhaps
Two views of the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands at Rancho Mirage in southern California, by mid-century modernist architect A. Quincy Jones