Will Superpower Tensions be Soothed at A. Quincy Jones-designed Sunnylands?

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This weekend President Obama has traded in the White House for a pink house, meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping Friday in Sunnylands, the rose-tinted desert home of the media magnate Walter Annenberg and his wife Leonore, in Rancho Mirage. (He had a trying time getting there, starting Friday with a press conference at which he had to swat away charges more commonly leveled at his guest’s government — over-surveillance of his citizens. Then he attended a fundraiser, just blocks away from the shooting at Santa Monica College, where KCRW is based)

The 30,000 square feet, house on a 200-acre site with an 18-hole golf course, 11 manmade lakes, and an impressive collection of Impressionist paintings (fakes now take the place of the originals) was a destination for the rich and powerful in its heyday, with visitors including the Queen of England (Annenberg had served as Ambassador to Great Britain), Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and the Reagans and their “kitchen cabinet” of conservative Californian businessmen.

The house, shown above, was designed in the early 1960s by architect A. Quincy Jones and happens to be part of an exhibit entitled A. Quincy Jones: Building for Better Living, currently on show at the Hammer Museum, as part of Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A.

Writing in the catalogue, Mayer Rus describes the  “casually palatial” project, a fusion of Mayan and midcentury Modern influences, as the creation of an “improbable pair–William Haines, the debonair decorator-about-town known for his impeccable taste and his rarefied Rolodex of celebrity clients and A. Quincy Jones, the earnest architect dedicated to the cause of providing efficient, affordable housing for the burgeoning middle-class in postwar America.”

Despite its size, its open floor plan and long low volumes reflected progressive ideals found at more modest scale in A. Quincy Jones’ many liveable Modern houses (that can be seen in developments like Crestwood Hills in Brentwood).

Visitors Center

Following Walter Annenberg’s death, his widow Leanore worked with architect Frederick Fisher and Texas landscape architect James Burnett, to restore the house, add a visitors center (shown above), and redo the expansive gardens in a painterly display of thousands of specimens of indigenous desert planting that marked what the architect described (on this DnA) as a “new day” for the estate, reconceived for more energy and water-efficient times.

Sunnylands was also reconceived as a “nonpartisan” retreat where world leaders could meet in a serene setting, to discuss politics, economics and the environment; the meeting between the US and Chinese leaders is its biggest coup to date.

When Sunnylands reopened with a grand party early last year, Fisher recalled getting “goosebumps when I got to drive up Frank Sinatra Drive and see that glowing pink pyramidal roof, and see the women in gowns and the place aglow and remember the people at the New Years Eve parties of Annenbergs.”

Sunnylands was created at the peak of the Cold War while Americans enjoyed economic abundance and global prestige, reflected in the Mad Men-era style of those glamorous New Years Eve parties. One wonders how it will be received by the two leaders in a very different era for US-Sino relations.

Read more about Sunnylands in Christopher Hawthorne‘s report in the LA Times. Hear Frederick Fisher and Sidney Williams, architecture and design curator at Palm Springs Art Museum, discuss the estate and its changes, on this DnA. For a fascinating look at how affluent Chinese now like to live in custom homes modeled on the White House and other neoclassical bastions of Western power, listen to Bianca Bosker on this DnA. And for the furor surrounding surveillance by the US government, as the summit commences in the desert, listen to this To The Point.