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Visiting Sunnylands, Palm Springs’s Luxury Getaway for Presidents and Royalty

Jason Cochran

Even democracies have their kingmakers. And in the United States, there have been few more powerful than the Annenbergs.

You may not have heard of them, but the people who govern the world have depended on their patronage for generations. In the 1960s, billionaire media titan Walter Annenberg and his wife Leonore hired architect A. Quincy Jones to create a midcentury-modern residence in the California desert town of Rancho Mirage, two hours’ drive east of Los Angeles and 20 minutes east of Palm Springs. From there, the Annenbergs parlayed their fortune into unprecedented political influence.

When Richard Nixon fled the White House upon resigning in 1974, this is where he went to decompress: 200 gated, meticulously landscaped acres and a private 9-hole golf course well away from the prying eyes of the press, Sunnylands served for decades as an exclusive desert retreat for the American elite, hosting private parties and dealmaking that made the world spin. The Annenbergs hosted royalty, U.S. presidents, prime ministers, and celebrities. Now anyone can visit. 


Architect Jones, a dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California, wanted to help the Annenbergs create an estate that didn’t emulate classical European styles but instead looked forward. This peaked portico would shelter visiting VIPs as they arrived from the searing desert sun.

Queen Elizabeth Visits

Here’s the United Kingdom’s Prince Phillip and Queen Elizabeth II standing at the threshold of Sunnylands with the Annenbergs in early 1983. Walter told her she was about to “see how ordinary Americans live.”


This is apparently how ordinary Americans live—if ordinary Americans are billionaires who spend their careers making and breaking political candidates in the newspapers they own. Walter was a friend and supporter of Ronald Reagan since the 1930s, and by the 1960s, Richard Nixon had appointed the publishing tycoon as ambassador to the United Kingdom. He never relinquished his relationships with world leaders, preferring to offer this home as a safe space for them to escape and relax. The huge windows open to the San Jacinto mountains and the world beyond, but the Annenbergs’ social savvy was just as effective at bringing the world in. This atrium area, the heart of the house, was the center of the gatherings. The sculpture is a signed original by Auguste Rodin—just like grandma used to have, right?

New Year’s Eve at Sunnylands

Ronald and Nancy Reagan came to Sunnylands annually for nearly two decades to celebrate New Year’s Eve with their old friends—the annual parties, which New York socialite Brooke Astor proclaimed “the greatest invitation one could ever have,” were thrown right here, serenaded by the Tony Rose Orchestra. Pictured is the last day of 1981, nine months after the assassination attempt that nearly killed the president. The Reagans attended every year that they were in the White House.

Living Room

Handsome movie star William Haines was voted the top box-office attraction of 1930 by movie distributors, but he was soon forced out of the industry for being gay. But like Walter, Haines was deftly diplomatic—he became a professional interior designer and earned the favor of prickly high-end clients including Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Gloria Swanson, George Cukor, and Frank Sinatra. His work, which humanizes the 25,000-square-foot house via clusters of cozy living spaces, was trendsetting, blending custom furnishings, exquisite French décor, Asian touches, and great paintings. Haines pieces are now prized among design collectors, but at Sunnylands, entire rooms of his work are still intact.

The Reagans in 1967

Here are Ron and Nancy on that first visit to Sunnylands in 1967, right after he was elected governor of the state and his political rise was firing up. Beside them is Dwight Eisenhower (with Leonore). Seven American presidents have spent time at Sunnylands, making it an unofficial White House annex that transcends party affiliation. At this level of power, everyone is a peer.

Master Bedroom

Leonore’s old room is now considered the master bedroom, and only U.S. presidents or heads of state are permitted to sleep in it. (On one visit, Barack Obama asked to stay an extra night.) But there were 22 more guest rooms in the main house and adjoining cottages, plus a big staff to fuss over them. Colored jellybeans were put in each room to match its color scheme, and even the potato chips were served in spiral stacks.

Sunnylands as Retreat

In true modernist style, infrastructure proclaims itself as a design element. The exposed trellises make statements out of the desert light. It’s enough to put a person into a contemplative mood—and in fact, this is the place where Nixon chose to hide following his resignation. He wrote in the guest book: “When you’re down, you find out who your real friends are.”

Patio at Sunnylands

At any given time, there were beween 20 and 30 gardeners working on the golf course, grounds, and 11 manmade ponds. At the gardens’ peak, before California droughts became more of a concern, you might have found 5,000 petunias wasting their glories on the entrance driveway. Some 850 olive trees still grow on the grounds, as do two lone palm trees that were planted at the behest of Dwight Eisenhower.

Rose Garden

The estate still employs a fair number of horticulturists to maintain the gardens that Leonore favored, including the rose garden, which still grows varieties cultivated by the Annenbergs and named for their powerful female friends. The Nancy Reagan has thorns, of course, and the Barbara Bush smells sweet.

“Fishing” at Sunnylands

President George H.W. Bush liked bass fishing in the ponds. In fact, he chose a bedroom near the water and kept a fishing pole by the door so he could sneak out for early morning sessions. Bass, of course, are not native to the Coachella Valley desert—the Annenbergs stocked them to please visitors.

Bill Clinton on Valentine’s Day

The Annenbergs’ power did not translate to ruthless partisanship the way modern American power tends to do. In 1995, the same year that Bush 41 was photographed fishing in the yard, then-President Bill Clinton came for Valentine’s Day, and his hosts wore red in celebration. (Considering both the Bushes and the Clintons spent lots of time hanging out at Sunnylands, it’s easier to understand how Bill and the Bushes became such close friends despite their political differences.) Romance visited Sunnylands in 1976, too, when Frank Sinatra married Barbara Marx in the atrium.

The Grounds

Walter and Leonore Annenberg are both gone, laid to rest here on their estate in a private area (he died in 2002; she followed in 2009). But following years of philanthropy during which they donated a reported $2 billion, they left another $200 million to create a foundation that maintains Sunnylands as a retreat intended to be used to solve the world’s most pressing issues.

Sunnylands as Summit House

Sunnylands is now dedicated as a neutral ground for conferences where international policy is determined. The trust’s declaration asserts that Sunnylands should be used by the President or the Secretary of State to bring together world leaders to promote peace. When President Barack Obama met Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2013, he did it here, with a small press pool and the privacy that only extreme wealth could create. When he met with King Abdullah II of Jordan (above) the next year, he did it in the atrium, in front of that prized Rembrandt Peale portrait of Washington. Sunnylands has also been used for international confabs about HIV, social change, and education. Bass fishing tournaments are no longer within the mandate.

Visiting Sunnylands

And, of course, you can visit. When it’s not providing a place to solve the world’s biggest problems, the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands ( runs 90-minute tours of the home’s interior, where you can see the art and furniture while listening for historical echoes. Groups on this “Sunnylands Estate” tour are limited to 7 visitors per tour. Tickets go on sale on the 15th day of each month starting at 9am Pacific time for the following month’s tours, and they are usually snapped up within days. The house, which is now called the Historic Home, is usually closed during the summer months.

The grounds, which are called Sunnylands Center & Gardens, are open mid-September to early June, are are free to enter, including free parking, and no reservations are required.