Take Two

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by Alex Cohen & A Martínez

Sunnylands: A desert retreat for presidents, politicians and movie stars

by Jacob Freedman with Meghan McCarty | Take Two

A view to the estate house across one of the lakes on the golf course. Ned Redway

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in California on Friday, and over the weekend Jinping will hold a summit with President Obama. What the two world leaders make of their meetings is crucial, and a 20,000-square-foot residence in Rancho Mirage will play a role in hosting the discussions.

The Sunnylands estate is a mid-century modern architecture masterpiece, now doubling as a diplomatic host site. It was commissioned by Walter and Leonore Annenberg in 1963, and former president Dwight Eisenhower was among its first guests when it was completed in 1966.

To architectural and culture writer Edward Lifson, the '60s period during the building’s conception represented the best of American culture. “(It was) the height of American power, American optimism, and America’s message of democracy to the world,” he said. “I hope some of this rubs off on the summit."

Lifson says more important than the time period is the building’s unique structure. The estate’s architect, A. Quincy Jones, was what Lifson called “the quintessential Southern California mid-century modernist," and the building’s structure is marked by clean lines and extensive amounts of glass.

The building’s roof, known as a statement roof, is also special in that it makes a pyramid shape, a form derived from Mayan design. The building is also well in tune with the nature which envelops it. The area is surrounded by the San Jacinto Mountains, and according to Lifson, nearly every room in the house is connected to a garden, pond, or offers a scenic view of the mountainous backdrop.

Besides the eloquent views, the facility has precedent for playing host to America’s current and former leaders. Lifson said every president since Richard Nixon has visited the home, recollecting how George H.W. Bush enjoyed fishing on the grounds and that Ronald Reagan celebrated every New Year’s Eve of his presidency on site.

It makes poetic sense too for Obama to host the Chinese leader there as well, and Lifson hopes the open structure sends the correct message to its temporary residents.

“It fits in and it brings the outside in,” he said when talking Sunnylands hosting this weekend’s summit. “I hope that they understand here the value of transparency, and I hope some of that rubs off on the state leaders.”

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