Sunnylands Estate and Gardens — Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Sunnylands exterior view
Ken Hayden, copyright The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, 2012.


historic-housePalm Springs, California, is a favorite destination for fans of mid century modern architecture. If you are in the area, for sure, take a day trip to experience the historic Sunnylands estate in nearby Rancho Mirage.  There really aren’t too many “pure” mid century modern house museums that you can visit in the U.S. — but this is one of them. The Sunnylands mansion and three nearby guest cottages all were designed by the famed architect A. Quincy Jones… with interiors by legendary Billy Haines and Ted Graber… and even a nine-hole golf course by 1960s golf course architect Dick Wilson.

Sunnylands atrium and Royal Living room
The Royal Sitting Room offers a gallery of photos of family friends who are also members of the British Royal Family or high-ranking officials of the UK government. Just off the living room, the view from these windows are of the golf course and the mountains beyond. Ken Hayden, copyright The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, 2012.

Ambassador Walter and Mrs. Annenberg commissioned Jones to design the 25,000 square foot house in 1963. It was completed in 1966, and the couple lived there at least five months a year.

In 2001, the Annenbergs put the estate in trust, with specific permitted uses. Its focus: “They directed that their beautiful estate be available to serve as a sanctuary for generations of high-level national and world leaders seeking the privacy, the peace, and “the pause” needed for solving the most pressing national and international issues.” In fact, President Barack Obama used this space just last week for meetings with new Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Note, as a result of such commitments, public tours may not operate year-round. For example, the estate is closed this July and August 2013. The website also advises that: “Visits to the historic estate are by guided tour only. Tours are limited to seven people each and there are 15 tours a day. All tours require advance reservations as space is extremely limited.” Tours are only held Thurs.-Sunday. So: Plan ahead — but, it sounds like it will be an amazing experience!

In the past decade, more than $60 million has been spent to restore the estate. This includes $25.5 million to restore the historic house, its grounds, the golf course and cottage. Even more was spent on the Sunnylands Center and Garden — gathering place for the leadership retreats.

The Sunnylands website explains more about Jones and his brief for the design of the house and gardens:

Sunnylands Exterior
Ken Hayden, copyright The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, 2012

Jones, who for many years was dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California, was known both for designs that integrated houses into the landscape and for “statement roofs.” His signature style is evident at Sunnylands, where he used overhangs to shield the interiors from the direct sun, plus walls of glass to allow the climate’s brightness to fill the rooms.

Leonore Annenberg’s deep love of flowers and nature is reflected in the cactus and rose gardens that abut the house and terrace.

Interior rooms flow into each other with the same open expansiveness as the surrounding landscape.

Sunnylands Game Room
The Game Room offers visitors a chance to relax just steps away from the swimming pool. A projection room just beyond the cabinets on the back wall allow for the room to be a comfortable place to watch a movie. Ken Hayden, copyright The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, 2012.

The Game Room offers visitors a chance to relax just steps away from the swimming pool. A projection room just beyond the cabinets on the back wall allow for the room to be a comfortable place to watch a movie.

As with most mid-century modern buildings, the house’s architectural structure is exposed rather than hidden. Trellises, steel beams, and coffered ceilings are all evident. Mexican lava stone walls that were hung with the Annenberg Collection of art create a bold style.

Sunnylands mayan roof
The signature roof of Sunnylands features the pink color that Mrs. Annenberg saw as a representation of the color of the mountains at sunrise and sunset. Ken Hayden, copyright The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, 2012.

And that statement roof? An iconic pink pyramid. The color was chosen in accordance with Leonore Annenberg’s wish to match the sunset glow on nearby foothills.

Sunnylands Atrium
Auguste Rodin’s Eve is the first thing seen as guests enter through the front doors of the house. Ken Hayden, copyright The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, 2012.

Above: The atrium of the historic house. The sculpture is an original casting of Eve by Auguste Rodin, 1881.

Sunnylands living room
Formerly the dining room, this casual adjunct to the living room opens onto the upper terrace. Ken Hayden, copyright The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, 2012.

The interiors were designed by William Haines and Ted Graber, known for decorating the Reagan White House and for popularizing the Hollywood Regency style.

Leonore Annenberg’s love of yellow and pink is seen in the choice of hues for the home’s marble floors and guest wing suites. The main living area was arranged with casual groupings of tables, chairs, and low sofas, encouraging intimate conversation. Lunch often was enjoyed in the game room adjacent to the pool, while dinners were served in the formal dining room. The Annenbergs and their friends watched movies on a large screen, teed off on the estate’s private nine-hole golf course, or simply played one of Walter and Leonore’s favorite games: backgammon.

Our new list of 59 mid-century and modern historic house museums includes both estate-masterpieces and the modest vernacular houses — Sunnylands is likely the most lavish site on the list. So wonderful to now have it now secured for public tours and meetings.

Link Love:

Sunnylands is #11 on
our map of 59 mid-century and modern historic house
museums you can visit. Check them all out here:


  1. miya says:

    This “house” has always fascinated me. Haines and Graber created a masterpiece that looks comfortable even though the rooms are so large. I love love love the Game room, would trade my children for some of that furniture.

  2. Robin, NV says:

    It’s amazing how timeless the house is. No one would dare call it “dated.” I wonder what the kitchen and bathrooms look like.

  3. Ranger Smith says:

    This house has been high on my to do list ever since it opened to the public. I really like the upholstered charis found in various rooms; tufted with the splayed legs in a beige or taupe color. They look cool comfortable and timeless. I’m sure Pam is lovin the ;inch pleat drapes. 🙂

  4. Jay says:

    This stunningly modern light filled home was the complete opposite of the Annenberg’s main residence in Wynnewood, PA – a 13 acre Georgian style estate that Mrs. A’s daughter referred to as a dark and gloomy Main Line house.
    It also brings to mind the FLW house built for Fiske Johnson (Johnson Wax) and now the home of the Johnson Foundation which I believe can be toured when not in use.

  5. Lauryn says:

    I think the thing I love the most is how this house and others of this era and design were so beautifully integrated into the landscape (and what an incredible landscape!!). I have never had the desire to live in California, but sometimes when I see these homes, I really understand the draw and start thinking about what I’d do if I won the lottery!

    It is positively mind blowing to me to think that a 25,000 square foot home was built for a couple to live in “at least five months a year”. Crazy!

  6. Gail Woods says:

    This estate is where Frank Sinatra married his fourth wife Barbara in 1976.Pretty cool.

  7. Scott says:

    The space itself is stunning but the furnishings and décor are about the most amazing fusion I’ve ever seen of MCM and Hollywood Regency… it’s a delicious combination.

    And oooooooo that circular drive.

  8. Mike G says:

    Just went on the 90-minute tour last weekend, and it was well-worth the $35 fee. You have to plan ahead, as tickets go on sale each month on the 1st and the 15th at 9a— if you’re not online at 9a sharp, they will sell out within 20-30 minutes. As mentioned, they’re closed for the summer but reopen in September. Truly a one-of-a-kind home.

  9. 52PostnBeam says:

    I went through this house in February. Highlights are the “Presidents Room” (library containing an impressive set of snapshots and portraits of the former owners w/ Presidents and dignitaries). Also loved a carved jade bull on display in the main room, and the game room / pool area. Hard to understand how $25mill was spent restoring the house though, it seems mostly original like a true time capsule. They had replicas made of all the art (and donated the originals), maybe that’s part of the cost. Interesting fact: it’s a one bedroom house! The Chinese pres and his entourage stayed at a resort in nearby Palm Desert.

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