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Sunnylands: A Midcentury Modern Home with a Place in History

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Sunnylands: A Midcentury Modern Home with a Place in History

Sunnylands is a midcentury modern architectural treasure near Palm Springs that has played a key role in world diplomacy over the years. Read on for more about this Southern California oasis. 

In the desert of Rancho Mirage, California, near Palm Springs, Walter and Leonore (Lee) Annenberg created a magnificent midcentury modern home that would also serve as an important retreat center for world leaders. More people have become aware of the estate since The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands opened it to public tours.

A lovely garden with cacti and Palo Verde Trees is free to stroll in. A café offers lunch with a stunning view from the patio. Guided tours of the house showcase the midcentury modern architecture and diverse artwork while educating about the estate’s mission. The historic private retreats continue a few times each year as well. I enjoyed touring the home and learning about this interesting piece of California history.

Sunnylands garden filled with native desert plants. Photo by Judy Karnia

Who Were the Annenbergs?

The career of Walter Annenberg developed from a successful publisher and broadcaster to a diplomat and philanthropist. As editor and publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer, he created Seventeen magazine in 1944. Nine years later, he created TV Guide and promoted educational programming on television. Annenberg also founded university communications studies programs and became an enthusiastic supporter of the arts. After a stint as Ambassador to the Court of St. James in Great Britain from 1979-1974, he continued to be active in public life.

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Leonore Annenberg joined her husband in her devotion to public life. She served as Chief of Protocol for President Reagan in 1981 and as Chairman Emeritus for the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies. She earned awards for her philanthropic work and founded the American Friends of Covent Garden in London.

In 1966, the Annenbergs completed Sunnylands and began hosting presidents, intellectuals, and celebrities. The power couple welcomed eight presidents, from Eisenhower to Obama, to participate in meetings or to utilize the estate to work and relax. They aimed to “address serious issues facing the nation and the world community” through intimate, solutions-based dialogue. The year before Walter Annenberg’s death, the couple established the Annenberg Foundation Trust in 2001 to continue bringing world leaders together and to educate the public about this work.

Visiting the Estate Today

During an overnight stop in Palm Springs, I visited Sunnylands because it sounded like a lovely garden. Fortunately, one spot on the house tour remained open, and I grabbed it. I had time for lunch before it started and enjoyed dining on the patio overlooking a broad lawn with a backdrop of the towering San Jacinto Mountains.

View of mountain from Sunnylands

View of the San Jacinto Mountains from Sunnylands Garden. Photo by Judy Karnia

The Café offered a few salads and sandwiches, and I ordered the Field Greens Salad and green tea. A timer with three mini hourglasses signaled when to push down the press on the kettle depending on how strong I wanted my tea. I relaxed and watched visitors taking photos of the cacti and Palo Verde trees mirrored in the reflecting pool next to the patio.

Lunch on patio

Lunch on the patio of the Sunnylands Cafe. Photo by Judy Karnia

The Gardens

Except for the summer months, the nine acres of the gardens are open and free to the public. Visitors can stroll among more than 70 species of plants, including native California plants along with plants from North and South America, Africa, and the Mediterranean that can tolerate the arid climate.

An expanse of lush, closely-cropped lawn centers the gardens. A rectangular pool lined with smooth stones on either side reflects a line of Palo Verde trees. These rest in a larger rectangle of squat cacti that resemble pointy poufs arranged in neat rows. From here, a sidewalk encircles the lawn past all types of cacti and agave plants set amongst various trees.


Labyrinth in Sunnylands garden. Photo by Judy Karnia

Benches are placed strategically to offer a quiet place for rest and contemplation in the shade. One bench has an engraving stating that it was a gift to the President of the People’s Republic of China from President Obama in 2013.

Bench in garden

Commemorative Bench in Sunnylands garden. Photo by Judy Karnia

Tour of the Annenberg Home

I hopped onboard a golf cart with six other visitors and our excellent tour guide at my appointed tour time. As we drove through a pristine golf course, our guide explained that only official guests of the home are allowed to golf here while they are visiting.

A two-story tall bronze pillar fountain surrounded by stones and grass centered the enormous circular driveway at the front of the house. A pink roof, designed to resemble the color of the sunsets, peaked over a wide, cantilevered overhang. The tall white doors set deep within two white walls beneath a white grid were iconic mid-century modern California.


Entranceway of Annenberg home. Photo by Judy Karnia

The doors opened to a vast entry where the deep grid on the underside of the eave extended to the ceilings inside. Pink marble floors set off groups of low, long, elegant sofas with a chair on each end, perfect for initial gatherings at a party. On the walls, digital reproductions represented the masterpieces by artists such as Renoir and Monet that the Annenbergs had donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A square atrium with Rodin’s Eve surrounded by pink flowers set off the reception area from the formal living and dining rooms. A large part of the 25,000 square feet of the house designed by architect A. Quincy Jones is an open plan lavishly decorated by interior designer William Haines.

The Colorful Bedrooms

Walking into the master bedroom, the magnificent view across the lush grounds to the mountains beyond stole the show through the two complete walls made of glass. I wasn’t sure if this sight would draw me out of bed or make me want to spend all day lying in bed gazing at it. The pale yellow bedding and upholstery atop a wall-to-wall yellow carpet were more California chill than opulent mansion.

View from home

View from the outdoor patio of Annenberg home. Photo by Judy Karnia

The guest bedrooms also chose a pastel color and stuck to it, including the adjoining bathrooms. I could appreciate the design choice without being fond of the outcome. Each room had a matching serving tray, which the kitchen used to coordinate breakfast. I enjoyed seeing a list in each room of who had stayed there, such as Princess Margaret, Hillary Clinton, and Barbara Walters.

Other Highlights of the Home

The living room resembled an art gallery with paintings on all the walls and sculptures on every surface. Impressionist art and Asian art seemed to be favorites of the couple. A few groupings of couches, chairs, and coffee tables offered plenty of space for after-dinner chats. More wall-to-wall windows showcased the beauty around the home.

Other highlights through the house included the Room of Memories that brimmed with photos of the Annenbergs with American Presidents and world leaders, as well as letters and cards from many of them. The dining room held an elaborate crystal chandelier and some of the couple’s collection of fine porcelain table settings. The visitors center of Sunnylands exhibits many of these dishes that the couple used regularly when hosting.

Porcelain dish

Queen Victoria pattern on one set of porcelain dishes at Sunnylands. Photo by Judy Karnia

A game room sported a more relaxed feel with a mix of yellow to red fabrics and less formal furniture. The modern kitchen was spacious and well-equipped to host large gatherings. A series of deep, wide drawers in one wall was labeled with the number and type of china they held.

The guided tour of the house is the only way to fully experience the opulence and mid-century design of Sunnylands. The guide did a great job of explaining the history and ongoing work. It was moving to imagine the gatherings that occurred throughout the years and continue bringing thought leaders together.

Sunnylands Retreats

The Annenbergs established and then passed on to The Annenberg Trust Foundation collaborative retreats with small groups of influential people. The goal is to discuss workable solutions in facilitating global cooperation, civic and democratic engagement, food security, and global health. The retreats build understanding and consensus by placing people with different viewpoints in an intimate, confidential setting with open discussion. The Sunnylands website lists the meetings that have been held each year as well as descriptions of the outcomes.

Rose garden

Rose Garden of Sunnylands home. Photo by Judy Karnia

Articles Related to Visiting Palm Springs

Visiting Sunnylands

Touring the magnificent Annenberg home and spending time in the lovely garden was an incredible experience. Even more impressive was how the Annenbergs and the Trust bring together world leaders and provide a space for discussion and collaboration. This gem is worth adding to a visit to Palm Springs. We invite you to explore Wander With Wonder for more things to see in Palm Springs or elsewhere in Southern California.

Sunnylands is a midcentury modern architectural treasure in the Southern California desert. It has long played a role in world diplomacy. Today, you can tour the grounds and the home. Read the Wander With Wonder article for more about this treasure near Palm Springs. | Palm Springs | Annenbergs | Mid Century Modern Architecture | Historical Travel | What to do near Palm Springs | Southern California Gardens


Sunnylands: A Midcentury Modern Home with a Place in History

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