An Exquisite, Historical Local TreasureBy: Maggie Downs
For decades, desert dwellers have wondered what lies beyond the pink walls of Sunnylands, the private estate of Walter and Leonore Annenberg.
The sprawling, 200-acre Rancho Mirage property has been a sanctuary for many of the world’s most notable leaders, entertainers and thinkers, from Queen Elizabeth II to Bill Gates. The property opened to the public last year, drawing international media and sold-out crowds. Now you can see this desert oasis for yourself.
According to Mary Perry, deputy director of communications for Sunnylands, the estate, operated by The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, was intended to be a space for the entire community.
“Walter and Leonore Annenberg left their estate in public trust for two reasons,” explains Perry. “One was to serve as a high-level retreat center where meetings would be held that would affect change in the world; and as a public space where people could learn about the Annenbergs, their history, the collections at Sunnylands, and participate in educational and fun programming.”
The 20,000-square-foot home, designed by famed architect A. Quincy Jones, is a midcentury jewel. Most of the walls are stately plates of glass, allowing nature to act as the theatrical backdrop. The home is topped with bold statement roofs in Jones’ signature style.
Inside, visitors catch a glimpse of the Annenbergs’ art collection, considered one of the most important collections of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings in the world. Though the $1 billion collection was donated to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it now anchors the museum’s 19th Century European collection, the walls of the Rancho Mirage estate are adorned with fine, digitallyproduced copies. Among the paintings are renowned works by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas. Original sculptures, including Auguste Rodin’s sculpture Eve are on display throughout the home and estate.
Sunnylands also boasts a notable retreat center, known as the Camp David of the West, where President Barack Obama recently hosted China’s President Xi Jinping for a working meeting.
For those unable to secure tickets for the estate tours — they sell out quickly — a visit to the Sunnylands Center and Gardens is a must. The exquisite 9-acre gardens, laced with walking paths, are meticulously maintained with hardly a cactus spine out of place. If the grounds feel like an extension of the Annenbergs’ art collection, it is for good reason — Leonore Annenberg loved Impressionism, and prior to her passing, was involved in the design of the Sunnylands Center and Gardens. Subsequently, landscape architect James Burnett used Vincent van Gogh’s Olive Trees painting for inspiration. The visitor center is free of charge and features art exhibitions, multi-media learning stations, a café, and a small theater which screens a documentary about the history of Sunnylands.
“Our valley citizens come to Sunnylands for a wide variety of reasons, including our planned and scheduled activities,” says Perry. “But others come to just enjoy these magnificent gardens, to walk and to reflect. Others come to enjoy lunch and the incredible view from our café. There are so many reasons that the valley has embraced Sunnylands Center and Gardens as their own.”
Historic Estate: Tours are offered Thursday through Sunday by reservation, except when a retreat is held on the estate. Tickets are $35 each and must be purchased in advance at Sunnylands.org.
Sunnylands Center and Gardens: No reservations or tickets are necessary to visit Sunnylands Center and Gardens. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, September through June. Free guided garden walks are offered at 11 a.m. on Thursdays. Free guided bird walks are offered at 9:15 a.m. on Fridays.
Other events: Historic landscape tours and bird-watching tours on the estate are also available for $35. Nightlife is a series designed for young professionals with discussions that range from art to the environment, followed by a mixer. Tickets are $10 and must be reserved in advance at sunnylands.org.
Address: 37977 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage. Parking is free. For more information, call 760-328-2829.