Home is where his heart was

Times Staff Writer

“George Washington had Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson had Monticello. JFK had Hyannis Port. And Ronald Reagan,” says Reagan biographer Paul Kengor, “had Rancho del Cielo.”

Reagan called the sprawling, 688-acre ranch just outside of Santa Barbara his “open cathedral.” “The ranch is more part of him than any other California home,” says Kengor, author of “God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life” (Regan Books; 2004). “It was the most meaningful place in his life.”

In November 1974, just weeks before Reagan finished his second term as governor of California, he and his wife, Nancy, visited the property. He fell in love with it. She didn’t.

“When you go the ranch, you start at the bottom of a hill, really a mountain,” Kengor says. “You need four-wheel drive. It’s very rugged and very bumpy. There are potholes. As they rode up the hill, she was saying, ‘No, no, please don’t buy this.’ He had to work on her.”

Reagan christened the ranch Rancho del Cielo, or Ranch in the Sky. “The highest point is 2,600 feet,” Kengor says. “It towers above the Pacific.”


Reagan remodeled the simple adobe house himself -- turned the screened porch into a family room, tore off the corrugated roof and replaced it with tiles. He built a fence around the house, constructed a rock patio and a pond, and chopped brush. He chopped so much brush over the years that one biographer speculates that the Secret Service dragged extra brush onto the property before his arrivals.

Despite initial reservations, Nancy Reagan helped out.

“Mrs. Reagan varnished floors and did a lot of painting,” says former senior Reagan aide Peter Hannaford. “By the time they were done, they had a modest house: 1,500 square feet, one master bedroom and bath ... and a den with a fireplace.” Animal hides lay on the floor, mounted steer heads and paintings of horses hung on the walls, and the inevitable jellybean jar sat on a counter.

During his presidency, Reagan spent a total of 364 days at the ranch, then dubbed the “Western White House.” He received Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip there on a particularly rainy day, and “they all got drenched,” Hannaford recalls. Reagan took Mikhail Gorbachev for a spin in his Jeep.

“He gave Gorbachev a Stetson cowboy hat, but Gorby put it on backward,” Hannaford says. “Reagan leaned over to tell him that he had it on backward, but Gorby misunderstood because he wore it backward for the rest of the day.”

On a typical day, Hannaford says, Reagan rose early to do presidential “homework” before and after breakfast. “Then he’d go out and work -- prune trees, clear brush.... Then he would saddle horses for himself and Mrs. Reagan. Secret Service guys would do the same. As soon as the horses were settled, he would ring an old railroad bell. Agents would ride behind him and Mrs. Reagan. Out of sight, a Humvee that contained the rest of the detail followed.”

Lunch, then more work outdoors. Dinner -- often macaroni and cheese -- then reading time, and television (“Bonanza” or “Mission: Impossible”). “It was a quiet life, pretty much the same from one day to the next,” Hannaford says. Excepting the bulletproof windowpanes and visiting dignitaries, it was ranch living at its simplest.

Rancho del Cielo, lacking amenities such as heating, was a far cry from the “House of the Future” on San Onofre Drive in the Pacific Palisades. Built by General Electric Co. in 1957 for then-spokesman Ronald Reagan, it was fully electric and included every newfangled gadget on the market: electric gates and garage doors, retracting canopies over outdoor dining areas, light dimmers, heating on the terrace, air conditioning, a rotating barbecue spit, a heated pool, a movie screening room....

Constructed on the southern slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains, the stone and glass house featured an unobstructed view of Los Angeles and the ocean. Nancy Reagan decorated it, mainly in her trademark red. “We had a number of meetings in the Pacific Palisades home with his small advisory group,” Hannaford says of Reagan’s fledging days as a politician. “We would usually meet in the living room.... A few times, when he had been swimming, we went outside and sat around the patio while we talked.”

When Reagan was elected governor of California in 1966, the family moved into the Victorian governor’s mansion in the historic section of Sacramento. Nancy was dismayed by the four-story 1877 estate: wallpaper was peeling, heaters barely worked and the house smelled of mold. She regularly cried in bed after her husband fell asleep.

Four months after taking office, the Reagans ordered a new governor’s mansion constructed, and then moved into a rented two-story white brick Tudor-style house in an upscale East Sacramento neighborhood. Nancy furnished the house mostly with donations from friends, including a mahogany dining table from Betsy and Alfred Bloomingdale. She decorated with donated paintings, antique china and ever-present bouquets of flowers from the garden.

Reagan “didn’t care much about his surroundings; he could have been happy in a trailer or bunkhouse,” biographer Laurence Leamer writes. So while his wife redid the interior, he retreated outdoors and built a treehouse with their son Ronald Prescott “Skipper” Reagan.

Twenty-two years later, after two terms as president, Reagan left the White House. At 78, he still rode horses and worked the land at his beloved Rancho del Cielo. And when they weren’t at the ranch, the couple lived in an elegant red-brick ranch-style home with a swimming pool in Bel-Air. (The address was originally 666 St. Cloud, but the Reagans changed it to 668 in order to avoid satanic implications.) Walled and gated, the property offered the couple a new measure of privacy. It would be his final home.

“When they first moved in, we thought, ‘There goes the neighborhood,’ ” says former neighbor Jeff Hyland. But the couple were low-key, Hyland says, and didn’t host many parties. Tourists were more interested in the nearby “Beverly Hillbillies” house.

“Reagan said, ‘The longer I go to the ranch, the longer I’ll live,’ ” Kengor says. “When he stopped going to the ranch, he pretty much stopped living.”

Reagan publicly disclosed his Alzheimer’s disease in 1994. His last visit to Rancho del Cielo was in 1995, and Nancy Reagan sold the property in 1998.