Sunnylands: Sneak peek inside the Annenberg desert fantasyland

Share via

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

It is the Xanadu of the California desert: Sunnylands, formerly the winter residence of Walter and Leonore Annenberg, he the TV Guide publishing magnate, she the niece of Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn, who raised her. On 200 fabled acres now set behind a pink security wall, Walter and Leonore built a 25,000-square-foot house with an art and design collection so singular, no one seems able to estimate its value.

Presidents, princes and movie-star friends arrived by helicopter and limousine to golf on the private course, fish in stocked lakes and otherwise luxuriate in the Annenberg fantasyland. Now you can have a glimpse of it too.


On March 1, after a $61.5-million renovation that includes a new visitors center and garden, Sunnylands will open to the public. On view will be the Midcentury architecture by Los Angeles icon A. Quincy Jones, the interior design by the legendary William Haines and his associate, Ted Graber, and, most important, the Sunnylands mystique.

PHOTO GALLERY: Inside Sunnylands, a modern castle in the California desert

Preview tours during Palm Springs Modernism Week quickly sold out. But earlier this month, Geoffrey Cowan, president of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, and curator Anne Rowe led a private walk-through of the storied Rancho Mirage home, one of the Coachella Valley’s largest and most historic.

‘It was their final gift to the nation, in a way,” Cowan said of the Annenbergs’ wish for Sunnylands’ transition from private home to public trust. “It will be used for retreats, a kind of Camp David of the West, for leaders to meet to make a difference.” Sunnylands’ history reaches back to 1951, when the Annenbergs married and moved to Inwood, an estate outside Philadelphia. Eventually they wanted a second base on the West Coast. At heart, daughter Diane Deshong said, “Mom was a real Californian.”

After Sunnylands was completed in 1966, the couple spent about five months a year there, where they gathered family as well as luminaries that included the power elite (Queen Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher and eight presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton) as well as Hollywood royalty (Barbara and Frank Sinatra were married there). All found refuge in pampered privacy.

Next month, the public can wend its way off Bob Hope Drive, down the windy road to the new visitor center designed by Frederick Fisher & Partners, the firm behind the Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica. The visitor center architecture, as well as its interiors by Michael Smith, pay homage to the Midcentury aesthetics of Jones and Haines in the use of space and in materials.


A short ride via electric cart then brings visitors to the main attraction, the Annenbergs’ house, a sprawling Modernist box punctuated with walls of glass and a pink pyramidal roof. More than half an acre of living space was built with just one bedroom.

The house was designed for entertaining, and front doors lead to a lofty atrium with its centerpiece, the Auguste Rodin sculpture “Eve,” surrounded by pink bromeliads. Around her are elegant low chairs, sofas and tables by Haines and Graber in the Hollywood Regency style, as well as the Annenbergs’ fine and decorative art.

Forbes once estimated Walter Annenberg’s wealth at $4 billion, and his collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings was world-class. Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne — they’re here, but in reproduction. The originals were given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art after Walter’s death, but there remains original sculpture by Jean Arp, Steuben glass, Chinese ceramics and English silver-gilt.

“Mom was a perfectionist,” says Deshong, Leonore’s daughter from her first marriage. “She and Uncle Walter went through their decision on buying things very carefully.”

Leonore favored pink, which accounts for the pink roof and walls. She admired the color in the surrounding mountains at sunset. She also loved green, which explains the celadon tones throughout the house.

The master bedroom at the southeastern corner of the house has dual his-and-hers dressing rooms and bathrooms. It’s bright and cheerful, furnished in shades of yellow with natural light pouring in from two sides. An indoor swimming pool originally adjoined the bedroom, but when Leonore decided to bring some of Philadelphia to Rancho Mirage, she converted the pool area into the Inwood Room, replete with an English-style wallpaper and ornate 18th century gilt-frame mirrors.


Eleven artificial lakes surround the house, as does an emerald-hued, softly rolling nine-hole golf course. The Annenbergs loved golf and played almost every day. Three Jones-designed guest quarters were added in 1977.

The study, which Walter dubbed the Room of Memories, still has walls lined with photographs of the famous and powerful. Walter was ambassador to the United Kingdom under President Nixon, which explains why one wall is given over to more than two dozen Christmas cards from the Queen Mother. More than 3,000 letters from U.S. presidents are part of the Sunnylands collection too. But throughout the house you also will see pictures of the Annenberg children and grandchildren, reminders that for these two well-lived lives, Sunnylands was, first and foremost, home.


Sunnylands will be open for public tours of the house and grounds Thursdays through Sundays, most of the year (closed in August). The visitor center has a history of Sunnylands as well as videos on midcentury design, the ecology of the region and the Annenbergs. Cost: $35. Tours must be booked in advance. More information:


Sunnylands timeline


Walter Annenberg obituary

Leonore Annenberg obituary

LivingHomes’ C6 house: affordable prefab?

Palm Springs museum show on pool photography

Best bets for Palm Springs Modernism Week 2012

Landmark Houses: An L.A. Times architecture series


-- Scarlet Cheng

Photos, from top: The Annenbergs’ house and a pink garden retaining wall are reflected in one of the property’s 11 artificial lakes; antique wallpaper provides a striking backdrop for a gilded mirror frame with an avian motif; desert light and shadow play off upholstered chairs, among the Regency furnishings designed by William Haines and Ted Graber; English silver-gilt is showcased in the new visitor center; a reflecting pool and cactus garden behind the visitor center are part of the $61.5-million renovation and construction at Sunnylands. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times