A Place for PeaceAuthor:Mary Jo Bowling
Remembering an architectural wonder that served as the site of bipartisan collaboration
The guest register at Sunnylands the modernist masterpiece built for Walter and Leonore Annenberg in Rancho Mirage, is essentially a partial list of the world’s power brokers. It has been signed by eight American presidents (most of whom visited multiple times), a constellation of leaders from other countries, beloved celebrities (Frank Sinatra married his fourth wife there and Bob Hope was a frequent guest) and two Supreme Court Justices.
Since the Annenbergs set up a foundation to keep the house operating as a bipartisan gathering place in perpetuity after their passing, the register just keeps growing.
The mission of Sunnylands is to serve as a retreat where world leaders can “address serious issues facing the nation and the world.” It didn’t start that way. In 1966, after architect A. Quincy Jones and interior designer William Haines finished the dramatic, art-filled desert residence, it was an escape for the power couple and their friends—and oh, what friends they had.
Walter was a publishing magnate (he notably founded TV Guide, against all advice) and served as the United States ambassador to Great Britain. Leonore was a philanthropist and a preternaturally gifted hostess who became the chief of protocol of the United States during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. “Because of who they were, they knew an extraordinary array of people,” says Anne Rowe, director of collections and exhibitions at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands. “The first president to visit was Dwight D. Eisenhower. Richard Nixon was a frequent guest, and he was actually there on the day he recieved pardon by then-President Gerald Ford. Nixon then famously wrote in the guest book: “When the chips are down, you discover who your true friends are.”
To date, every sitting president save for Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump have visited. During the Annenbergs’ lifetimes at Sunnylands, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip came for lunch, Ronald Reagan signed a free-trade agreement with Canada and H.W. Bush hosted a state dinner for then-Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu of Japan. Later, Barack Obama hosted China’s President Xi Jinping and staged a summit for Southeast Asian nations. “No other private home has seen as many world leaders or played as big a role in world diplomacy,” says Rowe. “Although it wasn’t explicitly designed for such meetings, people react to its walls of glass that look onto the beautiful landscape and soaring vistas. People respond to this house; they seem to relax here. After visiting, Gerald Ford wrote: “The ancient Chinese philosophers believed…the land- scape represented the sanctuary of protection and peaceful comfort. Sunnylands has come to represent just this in my life…”
The Annenbergs were Republicans but explicitly willed that their home should be a place of bipartisanship. “Back then, both parties took a bilateral approach,” Rowe says. “Speaking for myself, it seems to be a bit different today. But Sunnylands seeks to be a place where political and social issues can be addressed across the aisle. It was the Annenbergs’ wish that it would continue to be a place where world leaders could do good things for the people of the world.”