Annenberg Estate Continues as Diplomatic Retreat; Now Open to the Public

By Vernell Hackett
Photography: Victoria Buesing and Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands

Once a luxurious home and a place where heads of state met in private to discuss various world and national issues, the Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage is undergoing a change in status.

Sunnyland Photo – credit: Victoria Buesing

The home of Walter and Leonore Annenberg, known as Sunnylands, will continue to serve as a place where great leaders come together to discuss pertinent issues, but it will also become a place where the public may venture beyond the pink walls, marvel at the wonderful architecture and grounds, and come to understand the history of this grand estate.

A brief overview of the estate’s history would show that no less than seven presidents and British royalty along with entertainment icons from several of Hollywood’s magnificent eras have visited the Annenbergs at their home.

Nixon formed his first White House cabinet there in 1968, and it was there he returned for peace and quiet after he resigned the presidency over the infamous Watergate scandal. Other well-known visitors included President George H.W. Bush, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Bill Clinton. Indeed, there is reason to see why it was often referred to as the “Camp David of the West.”

Among entertainment celebrities visiting the home were Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers. There was even a Hollywood wedding, when Frank Sinatra married Barbara Marx in 1976.

Sunnyland Photo – credit: Victoria Buesing

One of the most historic rooms in the estate is what is called the Room of Memories. This is where President Reagan watched Mikhail Gorbachev address the American people on January 1, 1986. The same day that an address by Reagan was broadcasted to the citizens of the then Soviet Union.

Walter Annenberg died in 2002; his wife, Leonore, passed away in 2009. At that time the plans were already in place for the estate to move into its next generation of glory. Leonore was a grand lady of the arts, science and education, serving as President Reagan’s chief of protocol from 1981 to 1982. Her husband was a publishing magnate who once owned “TV Guide” and the “Philadelphia Inquirer.” He also served as U.S. Ambassador to Britain from 1969 to 1974.

Together the two entertained royalty from all areas of politics, entertainment, the arts and more. They also amassed an impressive art collection of sculpture, paintings, glass, and art objects. Included was a collection of some 50 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art works worth an estimated one billion dollars, which they pledged to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1991. Among the artists were Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh and Cezanne.

As members of an elite class of entrepreneurs, the Annenbergs donated more than 290 million dollars to the University of Southern California, making the family the largest single donor in the school’s history, according to the “L.A. Times.” The article goes on to say that they founded USC’s Annenberg School for Communication in1971 and the Annenberg Center for Communication in 1973. Additionally more than 100 million dollars was given to expand the Eisenhower Medical Center and ten million went to the Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley. The latter was for a center with the responsibility to teach children about civic responsibility and the U.S. presidency. Later 25 million dollars was donated in order to build the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Center for Information Science and Technology at Caltech in Pasadena. (Note: What about the communications school at the University of Pennsylvania?)

Sunnyland Photo – credit: Victoria Buesing

Sunnylands sits on 200 acres and is 25,000-square-feet of beauty. It was designed by A. Quincy Jones, a modernist architect from Los Angeles, who was known for designs that integrated houses into the landscape

The Annenbergs chose William Haines and Ted Graber, known for decorating the Reagan White House and for popularizing the Hollywood Regency style, to design the interior. Leonore’s signature colors, yellow, celadon green pink, can be found in everything from the marble floors to the guest suites. The main living area was designed to encourage intimate conversation. Guests would take lunch in the game room off the pool area while dinners were served in the formal dining room. If guests wanted to watch movies they could do so on the estate’s large screen or they could play golf on the private nine-hole golf course.

The estate cost six million dollars to build in 1966. This was not the couple’s only home; they also lived in Wynnwood, just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Future plans call for Sunnylands to be open as a diplomatic retreat for the President as well as other high-level government officials. The new mission for Sunnylands is to continue to affect change in the world. The Annenbergs were explicit and prescient in their direction for the future use of Sunnylands, setting forth a range of permitted programs beginning with promoting world peace and international agreement:

• For the President of the United States and the Secretary of State to bring together world leaders to promote world peace and facilitate international agreement
• For the President of the United States, the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, and the bipartisan leadership of the Congress to meet to focus on ways to improve the functioning of the three branches of government or to discuss important issues facing these institutions
• For leaders of major educational and charitable institutions, government agencies, and other important public bodies to meet to address and determine how these institutions can better serve the public good
• For the schools and other charitable or educational institutions created or funded by The Annenberg Foundation to conduct programs that advance important educational and social issues
• To host programs of learned societies and meetings of leaders and distinguished practitioners in education, philanthropy, the arts and culture, and science and medicine to promote and facilitate the exchange of ideas and provide opportunities for high-level interaction and communication to advance these fields and for the common good
• For The Annenberg Foundation to conduct meetings to formulate policy and programs
• For the public to learn about the historical significance of Sunnylands

The staff at Sunnylands is dedicated to its future as a positive presence for world leaders to come and discuss ways to better the place we all call home. Janice Lyle, former executive director of the Palm Springs Art Museum, was hired four years ago as director of Sunnylands Center & Gardens. Geoffrey Cowan, director of Voice of America in the Clinton Administration and dean of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism from 1996 to 2007, is president of the Annenberg Foundation Trust. His goal is to have meetings that run from small to medium in size that will focus on issues related to the Pacific Rim and the Americas.

Cinny Kennard, senior advisor to the president of The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, has already organized one retreat this past January. His second one, later in March, is titled “Envisioning the Future of the U.S.-Mexico Relationship.” One of the people helping plan that retreat is Robert Suro, a journalist who founded the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, a think-tank with a Mexico Institute that is all about understanding, communication and cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico.

A goal of the summit is to try to define issues that could be included in a planned meeting of the nations’ presidents in 2013. (Names of participants have not been confirmed and will not be available for release until just before the meeting. Same goes for topics of conversation.)

In April a retreat already being planned will concentrate on math education. Heading that retreat will be Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, working with Robin Kramer, senior advisor to the president of The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands.

Tours through the historic estate are $35.00. The new Center is free to visitors, who can learn more about the history of the estate and enjoy its gardens. The first 600 tickets that went on sale for the public to see Sunnylands beginning the middle of March sold out in less than 10 minutes.

Other events that are planned for the general public include “Silver-Gilt: Decorative Art, Tableware and Treasured Gift,” a lecture by Timothy Schroder, fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and historian of silver, on March 22; the Rededication of the Kwakiutl Totem Pole, a 30-foot work of art that has been on the grounds since 1976, carved by Canadian First Nations artist Henry Hunt, on April 15; and the release of thousands of ladybugs into the Center Gardens on May 20.