This tour exceeded all my expectations — the house, grounds, and art collection were historic and beautiful. My guide was knowledgeable and competent. My fellow tour members, only six, were fun and interesting, and had done their research beforehand. One was retired from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) and was able to fill in the details of the art collection that our guide didn't know.
Walter and Leonore Annenberg bought over 900 acres of undeveloped desert in Rancho Mirage, east of Palm Springs, CA, in the 1960s to build a winter home. Walter became a media mogul and later a US ambassador to the UK under Nixon's presidency; Leonore was a west coast girl from a wealthy family who adored the pink of jacarandas and greens of nature and was Reagan's Chief of Protocol; both were extraordinary philanthropists. The Annenbergs entertained royalty, presidents from around the world including the USA, government and other leaders, and celebrities at Sunnylands until 2009 when Leonore died, seven years after Walter. However, they had ensured that the estate would live on by establishing a foundation. Today it continues to host presidents and royalty, as well as high-level retreats, and the public.
Jennifer, our guide welcomed me and my companions and described the tour we were taking. She made it clear we could not take photos inside the house, which is a pity. The estate is huge and we toured the grounds in an eight passenger golf cart, so the only walking we did was inside the house.
The estate would be much like a park surrounding a British stately home but for the fact that it is a gorgeous nine-hole golf course. I was itching to play the Dick Wilson designed course but you have to be either a head of state or a friend of the Annenberg family. Mature trees line the fairways and hundreds of olive trees deliver their bounty every year. Olive oil pressed from the olives is available to buy. There are lakes, waterfalls, and statues to admire,
along with a pagoda, the Chinese Pavilion, where lunch was served to those playing golf; see below.
There is an interesting Canadian connection too on the golf course. We drove along the long 5th hole with a dogleg to the right. Standing a bit further along was a tall totem pole (below right). This is one of Henry Hunt's creations, an internationally acclaimed carver from the Kwakwaka'wakw First Nation of coastal British Columbia.
We spent about half an hour touring the house. I could have spent the entire day there enjoying the Monets, Cézannes, Picassos, and many more well-known painters. It is also full of family photos and objets d'art from all over the world, but it's not overdone – it's a home, not a museum or gallery. But from the outside, visitors see a single storey, pink and white house with floor-to-ceiling windows that bring the vistas right inside. It is a classic mid-century modern design by A. Quincy Jones. The views of the Santa Rosa Mountains dominate from the south-facing side, as do the trees and streams.
The entrance is flanked by pink flowering bromeliads (left), and as I entered the atrium
my eyes were drawn to a statue, Eve by Rodin, surrounded by hundreds more and lit from a skylight above. Then I turned and saw the first of many Impressionist paintings on a charcoal grey lava wall. My jaw dropped. The family collected Impressionist and post-Impressionist art for decades. They gave fifty to New York's Metropolitan Museum on the understanding that the collection would never be split up, but there are many left to enjoy here, as well as the repros of those donated.
The home is elegant and refined, full of light, and memorabilia. The colour scheme was pastel pink and greens, Leonore's favourites. There is one whole room dedicated to memories – here the walls and surfaces are filled with photographs of and letters from the rich and famous. The Great Room is simply gorgeous and obviously well used, not a showpiece; the dining room is surprisingly small because the Annenbergs enjoyed intimate dinners with their guests. I'd like to have seen their kitchen but it was not on the tour. However the master bedroom suite was and looks out on the cactus garden. I could live here and never leave!
I walked through the guest suites where the Queen and Presidents have stayed. I examined the suite occupied by Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh when they stayed. Lovely, but hardly opulent. That was reserved for the service given to guests. I drooled over the Steuben glass collection and the china used at the dining table.
Outside was the lovely pool and garden (right) that guests can walk out to from their rooms. If they want to golf, the course is a step away. The rose garden lies close by too and the scent from the flowers was heady, although the blooms were past their best.
Overall my impression was that this is a home created for relaxation and intimate hospitality. There is so much to see, you have to go yourself and enjoy every square inch.
IF YOU GO:
- Choose to take the tour, not the self-guided walk in gardens close to the new Sunnylands Center. If you do the latter, you will not be in the estate grounds or see the house.
- The 90 minute tours for seven visitors at a time cover the grounds and house. Cost: USD$41 and can only be booked online two weeks beforehand, as long as there are no international visitors or a major retreat underway.
- Visit www.sunnylands.org for all the info.
IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved