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Mid-Century Modernist Sunnylands Estate Opens to the Public

A restoration and new addition tell the story of the “West Coast Camp David”

By Mike Singer

The winter home of publisher, philanthropist, and former U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain Walter Annenberg and his wife Lenore—Sunnylands—opened its doors to the public for the first time on March 1, lifting a veil on a fascinating chapter of American political and social history. “Here in the desert, for years people wondered what it was like behind the pink concrete block walls around the estate,” says Janice Lyle, director of Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif., about 10 miles southeast of Palm Springs.

The mid-century Modernist estate’s mystique was only heightened by well-publicized visits of world figures, including seven U.S. presidents (among them Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton), leading some to call it the “West Coast Camp David.” Other famous guests included Queen Elizabeth, U.S. Supreme Court justices, and numerous Hollywood legends.

Completed in 1966, the 25,000-square-foot home includes five guest rooms and three guest cottages, which a few lucky visitors got a sneak peak of during this year’s Palm Springs Modernism Week in February. The estate is spread over a 200-acre oasis that includes a nine-hole golf course, 11 manmade lakes, two pools, hiking trails, tennis courts, and hundreds of olive trees. No longer a private home, the estate will function as both a museum and as the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, offering high-level conferences and retreats to address important issues facing the nation and the world.

Balancing historic preservation with sustainability

Frederick Fisher, principal of Frederick Fisher and Partners, is in charge of the restoration of the historic estate and the designer of the new 17,000-square-foot Sunnylands Center, which offers visitors interactive displays, films, and sculptures from the prized Annenberg art collection. Fisher shares a deep affinity with A. Quincy Jones, FAIA, whom the Annenbergs originally commissioned to design their five-month-a-year residence. In fact, Fisher now works in Jones' former Los Angeles office, at the same desk where Jones designed Sunnylands. Fisher bought Jones's two-story office building in 1995 from Elaine Jones, the late architect's widow. “If I hadn't acquired the office building Jones designed, they were going to tear it down for parking,” Fisher says.

For the restoration, Fisher was guided by Jones’ original drawings and aerial photographs. The two years spent making the private home accessible to the public involved replacing all the non-tempered window glass with safety glass, reinforcing steel supports to bring them up to current seismic codes, adding security and fire measures, and constructing overnight lodging for guests. They also restored the golf course, adding a new irrigation system that will reduce its water consumption by 50 percent. Finally, there were upgrades to the HVAC systems, ventilation, and insulation. “We did all we could for more efficient systems, but with the goal to make it look and feel identical to when the Annenbergs lived there,” Fisher says.

The new Sunnylands Center rests on 15 acres of land, and includes a nine-acre garden designed by landscape architect James Burnett. With 1.25 miles of walking trails around the new facility, the garden draws inspiration from Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cypresses, a work once displayed at Sunnylands. Almost 50 species and 60,000 individual plants were required to complete the garden. Nearly 900 solar panels provide electricity, and 96 underground geothermal wells help heat and cool the interiors. It is expected that the garden will use no more than 20 percent of the water district allotment for the property—all elements that helped Sunnylands earn its LEED Gold rating last year.

The legacy of the Annenbergs and A. Quincy Jones

Lenore Annenberg commissioned the new visitor’s center in 2006. During their meetings, she and Fisher discussed ways to integrate interior design, art, architecture, and landscape into one seamless experience—the same principles that Jones followed when he designed the original Sunnylands residence.

“Quincy designed Sunnylands as a place for refuge, private conversations, and an embrace of nature,” says Fisher. “I think of the visitor’s center like a garden pavilion, with landscape views in every direction. It feels domestic, not grand, and this is also true in the Annenberg home, as they were renowned hosts and always wanted their famous guests to feel like they were at home, not in an institution. We wanted to whet people’s appetite for the historic house without co-opting that experience. Harmonizing with the Jones design was a very important issue for all of us.”

The visitor’s center, as well as the restored house, is designed to be a showcase for California Modernism. The Annenbergs chose Jones’ Modernist style at a time when their peers’ estates were more traditional. Jones came to the attention of the Annenbergs through their decorator, William Haines, who had worked with them on other properties. Haines, a former silent movie star turned interior designer, pioneered the Hollywood Regency style, based on 19th-century English Regency furnishings, and much of his furniture, now restored, can be seen in the home.

“Now that the public can go inside, they are awestruck by the beauty of the place, captivated by the design—and they love that they’re connected to history,” says Lyle. “In the tours, we try to provide visitors with an understanding of mid-century Modern style through observation of the site, the horizontal focus, the integration of indoors with outdoors, and the use of modern materials such as steel and glass.”

Five interactive multimedia learning stations will cover such topics as public life/private retreat, outside/inside living, and mid-century Modernist architecture, including the work of Jones and his California contemporaries.

One thing visitors won’t find at Sunnylands are the original Degases, Renoirs, Monets, Gauguins, Cezannes, and other paintings that once hung there. In 1991, Annenberg bequeathed his prized $1 billion collection of 19th-century Impressionist and 20th-century post-Impressionist art to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Today, digital reproductions are displayed on the same walls where the Annenbergs and their guests once viewed the originals.

With its Mayan pyramidal roof, living room with an indoor Persian-style paradise garden, and glass walls framing spectacular views of the San Jacinto Mountains, the Sunnylands estate shares a few important similarities to other residences Jones designed. Jones gained early recognition for his 1,700-square-foot Modernist homes in Los Angeles' Crestwood Hills, which pioneered ideas of outdoor/indoor living and walls of glass. Later, in partnership with his long-term business partner Frederick Emmons and developer Joseph Eichler, he helped bring these same Modernist principles of pulling nature inside to the masses with California tract homes.

Yet with its restoration and new public access, Sunnylands will expose Jones' grand Modernist legacy to thousands of people who have never stepped into one of his smaller California homes. As Geoffrey Cowan, president of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, says, “The Annenbergs would be so proud that a home that they made inviting by filling it with art has now become so much of art history in and of itself.”


The front of the new Sunnylands Center. All images courtesy of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands. Photo by Kerun Ip.

A view of the original Sunnylands estate house. Photo by Ned Redway.

View of the reflecting pools at the rear of Sunnylands. Photo by the Office of James Burnett.

Alberto Giacometti’s Buste de Diego (Stele III) has been reinstalled in the grand hall of the new visitor’s center. Photo by Mark Davidson.

The living room of the estate house, which features many original furniture designs by decorator William Haines. Photo by Graydon Wood.


Recent Related:

Palm Springs Residents Modernize Mid-Century Homes with Energy Savings and Sustainability in Mind

Steel and Shade: Architecture Pioneer Donald Wexler at the Palm Springs Art Museum

Architectural Vigilance Pays Off for Palm Springs Preservationists

Renovation of John Lautner’s Desert Hot Springs Motel Sets the Stage for Revival of the California Modernist’s Early Work

Stagecraft and Skylight: The Desert Hot Springs Motel


Sunnylands offers 10 tours a day ($35 per ticket), with only seven participants on each tour. The first released tickets for the early March tours sold out in 10 minutes, so plan accordingly. The Sunnylands Center is open free of charge and without advance reservations.

Visit the Palm Springs Modernism Week website.

Visit the AIA Committee on Design website on AIA KnowledgeNet.


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