Sunnylands, a stunning 200 acre estate containing a 25,000 sq ft mid century house, three guest cottages, a private 9-hole golf course and 13 man-made lakes was the winter retreat of the late ambassadors and all-round power couple, Walter and Leonore Annenberg.
The pair frequently hosted famous entertainers, political leaders and basically anyone rich and/or influential at the sprawling estate (often referred to as “Camp David of the West”) from when it was completed in 1966 all the way through to 2009 when ownership passed onto The Annenberg Foundation Trust upon Leonore Annenberg’s death.
The estate, which was almost completely hidden from public view by a pink-brick wall and a thick belt of eucalyptus, olive and tamarisk trees, was open to the public for tours during our stay in Palm Springs. Our tour began at the 15,000-square-foot visitors’ centre, designed by Frederick Fisher and Partners of Los Angeles in a compatible neo-modernist style and situated on 15 acres of desert gardens adjacent to the estate, from which we were transported to the main house by golf buggy.
The 1966 main house, with its distinctive pink Mayan roof, was designed by mid century architect A. Quincy Jones in his signature style, namely spacious, open rooms on a single floor with vast stretches of glass walls offering views of the pool, the golf course and the purple San Jacinto Mountains.
The main, almost temple-like entrance opened into a vast atrium and living room featuring a bronze Eve by Rodin at its centre. Eve was accompanied by a similarly significant art collection on the walls acquired by the couple, with about 50 works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Andrew Wyeth, and Monet (though most of these paintings were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art following Walter Annenberg’s death in 2002; the ones still up on the walls were high-tech facsimiles in perfect replicas of the original gilt frames). The rest of the house seemed to branch off the central atrium, with an almost overwhelming run of interconnected rooms that flowed on from one another.
The interiors and virtually every piece of furniture were designed by William Haines and Ted Graber, known for decorating the Reagan White House. The “Hollywood Regency” style was quite unlike anything I’ve seen paired with mid century architecture before: it was maximalist in a really chintzy sort of way featuring things like cream-linen sofas embroidered with pale-blue floral motifs; lacquered coffee tables, rare Chinese objects encased under glass tops, an entire wall display of Steuben glass, a sunshine yellow master bedroom, Meissen porcelain, Regency gilded silver and Ming vases. I can’t say that it was all to my taste but I couldn’t help but admire its sheer opulence.
While the interior decor and furnishings were a bit of an acquired taste, the views out onto the grounds from the terrace (where photography was finally permitted) were undeniably spectacular.
Photographs of main house interiors courtesy of a Google image search – photography was not permitted inside the main house during the tour.