September 15, 2015 – The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the completion of Walter and Leonore Annenberg’s famed Midcentury Modern estate in its upcoming season. Now a high-level retreat center, the spacious Rancho Mirage, Calif., house known for its architecture, interior design, art collection, and legions of world-famous visitors, welcomed its first guests in March 1966.
Throughout the 2015-2016 season, Sunnylands will host several 50th-anniversary events and extend a warm invitation to the public to contribute to the stories, photos, and memorabilia that will be preserved in the archives of this historic institution. Anne Rowe, Sunnylands director of collections and exhibitions, and the archives staff are inviting members of the community, particularly those who helped in the home’s construction, décor, art installations, or social events, to share their Sunnylands experiences.
“It is an opportunity to be acknowledged as a part of the history of Sunnylands. The artisans, craftsmen, and specialists who built and contributed to this historic home were or are residents of this valley. We want to honor their individual contributions in a permanent way,” Rowe said. The anniversary coincides with Sunnylands’ plans to start construction of a new archives building that will house the Annenbergs’ precious art and artifacts, including correspondence with U.S. presidents and British royalty. The names of community members and others who share their experiences and mementos will be registered in the archives.
The 50th-anniversary events begin with the season’s opening day, Thursday, September 24. Visitors to Sunnylands Center & Gardens will receive a free commemorative pin with a custom designed 50th-anniversary logo featuring the home’s iconic pink roof. On Friday, September 25, Sunnylands is showing Ocean’s 11, the first of three “Films on the Great Lawn” to be screened this fall starring Frank Sinatra, a close friend and neighbor of the Annenbergs, whose centennial birthday is December 12.
Other Sunnylands events coinciding with the estate’s 50th anniversary include:
In 1963, after purchasing land on the Coachella Valley’s desert floor with stunning views of the San Jacinto Mountains, Walter and Leonore Annenberg hired Los Angeles architect A. Quincy Jones, known for his modernist style, to design a 25,000-square-foot home nestled beside a nine-hole golf course. At the request of the Annenbergs, Jones integrated Mayan influences into the design, such as Mexican lava stone walls and a pink pyramidal roof, that have become signature features. Interior designers William Haines and Ted Graber designed the expansive rooms in the Hollywood Regency style. They assembled casual groupings of tables, chairs, and low sofas in the main living area to encourage intimate conversation.
The Annenbergs welcomed their first guests to Sunnylands on March 8, 1966. Sharon R. Simons, the wife of Texas businessman A. Pollard Simons, was the first to sign the famed guestbook. “Beautiful house & terrific hostess,” she wrote. Eight days later, Dwight D. Eisenhower, accompanied by his wife, Mamie, became the first U.S. president to visit Sunnylands. Over the decades, the Annenbergs welcomed presidents and other heads of state to their 200-acre estate, including Queen Elizabeth, Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Gerald Ford, and Bill Clinton.
Both Walter and Leonore would go on to hold the title of U.S. ambassador, with Walter serving as Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s for President Nixon and Leonore serving as chief of protocol for President Reagan.
Before they died, the Annenbergs created a nonprofit organization, The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, to preserve their estate as a private sanctuary where leaders could meet to promote world peace and facilitate international agreement. President Barack Obama has hosted high level meetings with President Xi Jinping of China and King Abdullah II of Jordan at Sunnylands. Additionally, retreats in five focus areas – the Greater Pacific, democratic institutions, education, health, and arts and culture – are held at Sunnylands. Geoffrey Cowan served as president of the Trust from 2010-2016.
The Annenbergs also directed the Trust to develop programs to educate the public on the educational and historical significance of Sunnylands. Toward that end, Sunnylands Center & Gardens, with its free exhibitions and environmental and educational programs, was built adjacent to the estate and opened to the public in 2012. Sunnylands has welcomed more than 250,000 guests since its opening.