January 20, 2017

Photo Essay: A Presidential Retreat in Palm Springs

Wait, this is the desert?

It's no wonder that U.S. presidents like to come to Sunnylands.

And it's no wonder this is pretty close to where Barack and Michelle Obama went after transitioning the power of the White House over to our new Commander-in-Chief.

What Camp David has been to U.S. presidents and other dignitaries on the East Coast, Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage has been on the West Coast.

After all, who wouldn't want to come here for a retreat or a meeting to discuss international relations, AIDS research, and homeland security?

It's certainly welcoming.

It's the kind of place where you could put your differences aside...

...and really get something done.

But Sunnylands wasn't built as a facility for politics or even political recreation—not originally, anyway. It was simply the winter residence of Walter Annenberg, the creator of TV Guide and Seventeen magazine, and his wife Leonore, who stayed there five months out of the year from 1966 to 2009.

Of course, in addition to his success in publishing, Annenberg also became the U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. It was he who introduced Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher.

For their main residence, the Annenbergs didn't select a historic style but rather commissioned architect A. Quincy Jones to make a statement with a midcentury modern design.

For its first 40 years, the Annenbergs entertained U.S. presidents (seven in total), fellow ambassadors, and celebrities like Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and the like—sharing their oasis in a grand gesture of hospitality.

But by the year 2012, when they'd both passed on, their plan that Sunnylands "be used to advance world peace"—and that the public would finally have access to it—was set into motion.

While the public is allowed "behind the pink wall," as they say, past those Mexican lava stone walls...

...around the cul-de-sac with that Mexican totem pole...

...and even through the front door...

...all photography privileges are revoked as soon as you walk in.

After all, it's still a matter of national security.

It's a funny thing, because Richard Nixon retreated to Sunnylands after resigning from the presidency in disgrace, while Reagan celebrated multiple New Year's Eve celebrations there. (They still keep a dish of jellybeans out for him.)

Walter and "Lee" were actually both buried on the 200-acre property, so they're still sort of around to play host and hostess to whomever may come for a visit. (After all, Lee was "Chief of Protocol"—a.k.a. hospitality and diplomacy—during the Reagan administration.)

They were both philanthropists, born into Jewish families, who loved arts and nature.

Walter himself perhaps put it best when he said:

"A man's service to others must be at least in ratio to the character of his own success in life. 
When one is fortunate enough to gain a measure of material well being, however small, 
service to others should be uppermost in his mind." - Walter H. Annenberg (1951)

They donated both to the Met Museum in NYC and the United Negro College Fund (the largest donation the organization has ever received).

Perhaps that's why our new president hasn't shown much interest in visiting Sunnylands, preferring to retreat to his own Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.

But that's OK, because Sunnylands will continue to be open to the public and anyone else who wants to come visit, play nine holes on its golf course, stroll its gardens, watch the birds, and taste the olive oil pressed from the fruits of its own olive trees at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Annenberg Community Beach House, Hearst's Lost Gold Coast
Photo Essay: An Inn for Presidents, Padres, and Patron Saints
Photo Essay: USS Iowa, The Last of the Battleships

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