A return to the fabled desert city of Palm Springs, CA, was on our radar after our terrific inaugural visit there last fall; we just had not anticipated that another trip would occur so soon.
But fate intervened six months later when our friend Keith asked us to join him and his wife, Carole, there to celebrate her birthday.
The desert climate in Palm Springs, boasting an average of 354 days of sunshine a year and temperatures generally in the 80s in March sounded mighty appealing, given the delayed spring in Charlotte. Our annual profusion of blooming Bradford pear trees, dogwoods, redbuds, and azaleas was relatively late this year thanks to some unseasonable cold snaps. And, since Bill and I were already going to be in nearby Los Angeles, the two-hour drive from there was perfectly feasible.
Houses factored heavily into Bill’s and my earlier visit, as he and I had taken an architecture-focused, drive-by tour of many of the city’s famed Mid-Century Modern homes. This time, a single house called Sunnylands – and what a place it is – took center stage.
Sunnylands in nearby Rancho Mirage was the 200-acre winter home of billionaire ambassador Walter (1908-2002) and Leonore (1918-2009) Annenberg. He had a genius for communications, publishing the Philadelphia Inquirer and creating Seventeen magazine and TV Guide, once the best-selling magazine in the country. They were one of the few couples in American history to serve as ambassadors – Walter to the Court of St. James in the United Kingdom, and Leonore as chief of protocol (with the rank of ambassador) for the U.S. He sold his company for $3.2 billion and used the proceeds to establish The Annenberg Foundation, funding education and cultural causes.
Riding in the shuttle with our guide, Amanda, Carole and I learned that the Annenbergs bought property in 1963 when it was just desert scrub. Over the next three years they transformed it, building a 25,000-square-foot Mid-Century Modern home, designed by A. Quincy Jones, with expansive floor-to-ceiling windows that bring in sweeping views of Mt. San Jacinto. Given the area’s abundant sunshine, the name Sunnylands certainly was apropos.
While we did not tour the entire house, the rooms we did see were more than sufficient to fuel our imagination as to the exalted lifestyle the Annenbergs led. We entered the atrium where one of two original bronze castings of Rodin’s Eve is surrounded by an array of pink bromeliads, a living art installation in and of itself.
The artwork on the walls of the atrium is astounding – a priceless showcase of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces by the likes of Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Gauguin…or is it? Amanda urged us to examine the pieces more closely. No brush strokes, no textured canvas. We were in fact looking at digital reproductions, for the Annenbergs had long ago donated the original paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The furniture is Hollywood Regency style, and generally long and low, presumably so as not to obscure the views. The Annenbergs were inveterate collectors, from the rare Chinese porcelain in the living room, to the Steuben glass displayed in the passageway leading to the formal dining room, and to the Battersea boxes in Leonore’s all-yellow bedroom.
My favorite was the Room of Memories, so named for the many pieces of memorabilia it contains. The Annenbergs knew and entertained everyone who was anyone – American presidents and vice presidents, Supreme Court justices, Hollywood celebrities, political leaders and assorted dignitaries, sports celebrities, and business tycoons – and the stories of their meetings, parties, and reunions are told in the many framed photos of famous people. Also on display are framed letters, original paintings, and even a wall case containing a replica of the sword of Sir Francis Drake.
The lush grounds include a nine-hole golf course, an olive grove (Sunnylands produces its own vintage olive oil), manmade lakes, a variety of outlying buildings to house guests, statuary (including a totem pole on the golf course to help golfers aim), and two token palm trees Leonore had planted to appease President Eisenhower who wondered at her dislike of them.
The Annenbergs’ who’s who list included Princess Grace of Monaco, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Stewart, Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis, Jr., Arnold Palmer, Gregory Peck, Dinah Shore, and Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, the two Bushes, and Clinton.
Thanks to Walter’s ambassadorial years in London, the Annenbergs formed close relationships with HRH Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip, and other members of the British royal family. On Prince Charles’ first visit to Sunnylands, he exclaimed in disbelief to Walter, “You left all this to go to England?”
The Annenbergs were committed to American ideals and goals. They made their home available to leaders and the elite not only for R&R, but also for conversation, conferences, and camaraderie in a beautiful, private, less pressured setting, earning Sunnylands the unofficial title of “Camp David of the West.”
Continuing in that vein following their deaths, The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands opened The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, hosting high-level conferences, seminars, and retreats of national importance.
A cliché, I know, but I thought if only these walls could talk.
During the rest of our time in Palm Springs, the four of us took great advantage of the picture-perfect weather.
We checked into La Maison Hotel (Trip Advisor’s #1 small hotel in the U.S. in 2014), where Bill and I had stayed previously. The orderly rows of white chaise lounges, protected by chartreuse umbrellas, stretched out along the sides of the aquamarine swimming pool and beckoned us to recline and relax.
For a more active pursuit we took an early morning hike at Tahquitz Canyon in the San Jacinto Mountains. The scenic two-mile loop trail has multiple rocky steps and a not-too-strenuous 350-foot elevation gain, and leads to the stunning Tahquitz Falls and back.
Bill asked the receptionist about the likelihood of encountering rattlesnakes. She said hikers reported only two or three sightings last year, compared with the three to four daily sightings at nearby Indian Canyon. Even though she said it was still too cold for snakes, she cautioned us to stay on the designated trail and not stroll though any bushes. NO PROBLEM. The sign at the start of the hike warning us that it was a rattlesnake habitat reinforced our vigilance.
Dining outdoors was another pleasure. We enjoyed wood-fired pizzas at the hip Birba, brunch at both Cheeky’s (ordering the cinnamon rolls is a must) and Norma’s at The Parker Hotel, and reveries (mine, anyway) of actor Cary Grant as we dined al fresco at Copley’s on the site of his former guest house.
All interior photos of Sunnylands are the copyright of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, and are reprinted with permission.