Desert Decadent

Sunnylands was the Southern California winter home of the late Walter and Leonore Annenberg — wealthy Philadelphia socialites who, during the latter half of the 20th century, became legendary for their philanthropy, patronage of the arts, and commitment to politics. The couple donated vast quantities of their media fortune to education, including $50 million to the United Negro College Fund, and gifted a $1 billion collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They also held civil service posts (Walter was ambassador to Great Britain under Richard Nixon, and Leonore was the State Department’s chief of protocol under Ronald Reagan) and hosted seven U.S. presidents and the British Royal Family at Sunnylands.

Appropriately named, the estate is sited on the corner of Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra drives in Rancho Mirage, just outside of Palm Springs. Its sprawling modernist house, designed by A. Quincy Jones, FAIA, is situated in the midst of 200 acres featuring verdant gardens and a private nine-hole golf course — an oasis in the sun-scorched Sonoran Desert. The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, which comprises both the home and the grounds, was created by the couple prior to their passing. Under the new programming, and expanding upon its “Camp David of the West” role, the estate functions as a retreat for political, educational, and cultural dignitaries from the United States and abroad, and is open to the public on a by-reservation basis. 

The Trust hired Los Angeles-based architecture firm Frederick Fisher and Partners and landscape architecture firm The Office of James Burnett (OJB), which has studios in Houston and San Diego, to design a visitor center for the estate. It was to be a place where the public could gather to learn about the history of the Annenbergs before visiting the house itself.  

However, what began in concept as a mere way station soon became a destination in its own right. “In 2006, we started the programming and design of the project with Mrs. Annenberg. We had a great relationship with her,” said James Burnett. “We took what everyone thought would just be a center and made the Sunnylands Center & Gardens.” Complete with a LEED Gold certification, the new Center & Gardens is a composition of color and texture achieved through a densely layered, yet sustainable, planting design. 

Frederick Fisher’s design for the Center takes its cues from the low, orthogonal, horizontal profiles and minimal materiality of Jones’ original. And, as with the original house, the building is approached via a curving drive that meanders through the landscape. However, the nine-acre gardens — which fill out the 15-acre site — make a significant departure from the neighboring grounds. 

“We took a different strategy with the landscape than the estate, which is predominately lawn and golf course,” said Burnett. “At the Center, we created a beautiful garden that is very rich and full with seasonal interest and uses minimal resources.” 

Burnett’s quest for fullness came in response to visiting nearby desert gardens, which tend to take the “specimen” approach with “onesies and twosies” of species well spaced out in a gravel mulch bed. “We wanted to try to take desert plants and give them more of a solid appearance, something where the plants would be designed in mass, where you would get large sweeps of a few interesting varieties,” said Burnett. 

“In the Coachella Valley, a lot of people try to mimic a desert environment, which is usually sparingly planted,” added Dillon Diers, 

vice president at OJB. “Jim and I tried to create something you might find more appealing — something that provokes a different emotion — rather than mimicking nature.” 

OJB laid out the gardens with an eye for color, proportion, and line inspired by the impressionist and post-impressionist painters that the Annenbergs so loved. They worked with a palette of more than 50 different species (some 53,000 plants in all), most of which are native to the Sonoran Desert. Massed groups of agaves, yuccas, golden barrel cactus, and desert milkweed, among other species, occupy their own distinctly defined beds, appearing, from above, much like the strokes of color in a Cezanne or Van Gogh. “The view changes on a month-to-month basis,” said Burnett. “Some varieties of grasses and agaves and aloes are quite dramatic; they give you a lot of show and beauty.” Multiple hues of yellow, a particular favorite of Leonore Annenberg, emphasize the arrival of spring. 

The landscape scheme transitions from an orderly, geometric composition adjacent to the Center to a progressively more organic and free-flowing arrangement at the eastern end. The central event lawn beside the building provides a hint of the more traditional landscape to be found at the estate and caps the geothermal wells that service the Center’s HVAC system. Here, the agave and cacti, arranged in perfect rows and circular patterns, radiate from the lawn in tight planting patterns emphasized by the short palo verde trees. Enwrapped in the varied textural experience offered by the gardens, visitors walk along intimate paths that lead to a small performance space and a labyrinth. 

To the east of the Center, the landscape opens up, and thornless mesquite and palo brea trees present visitors with shade as they walk deeper into the gardens, where serpentine paths lead to a two-acre field of desert wildflowers. Poppies, primroses, desert marigolds, and chia are planted en masse, creating large sweeps of exploding colors. “The gardens are quite an experience,” said Diers. Light, shade, color, and texture, all fundamental to the design concept, defy traditional notions of a sparse desert landscape. The effect is that of densely layered views of greens, greys, yellows, pinks, oranges, and crimsons all framed by the San Jacinto Mountains beyond. 

The soil itself was primarily left in its natural sandy, desert condition, without the addition of much fertilizer or organic material, which would have been typical in a more traditional approach to landscaping in the region. The gardens do boast a sophisticated capillary irrigation system, however, complete with soil monitors that measure moisture levels. It can be calibrated to deliver differing quantities of water to different beds. This was important for the initial planting phase (completed during the summer), when the plants required abundant quantities of water in order to establish their roots. Once that stage was over, the water was tapered back. All of the storm water that falls on the Center’s roof and parking lot, as well as a portion of the water that collects on Bob Hope Drive, is redirected to on-site retention areas that surcharge the depleting Coachella Valley’s aquifer.

Mrs. Annenberg passed away two years before Sunnylands Center & Gardens opened, an unfortunate turn of events that bothers Burnett to this day, but he feels that she would be pleased with the way the project turned out. “Mrs. Annenberg knew that in order for the Center & Gardens to be successful, it had to tell a sustainable story and also be beautiful,” said Burnett. “We made the Center a place where people can learn how to make a garden in the Sonoran Desert.”

Aaron Seward is the managing editor of The Architect’s Newspaper in New York.

Published in Texas Architect, July/August 2013