Sunnylands | Cultural Landscape Framework Plan

Rancho Mirage, CA

In order to manage the future of this historic place, it was essential to identify the key contributing landscape elements, the origin of their conception, and their integrity after nearly half a century of use, growth, and change.

In the 1960s, the Annenberg family built a 200-acre retreat estate in the Coachella Valley desert. Designed by midcentury modern architect A. Quincy Jones and a team of distinguished design contemporaries, the house and private golf course became the winter retreat for the Annenbergs. Over the next forty years, they famously hosted presidents, heads of state, and political and cultural luminaries.

The Annenbergs willed a new incarnation for the estate upon their passing; it was to become a museum and public resource, a Camp David of the West. Reimagined with this new program in a new era of sustainability and resource management, we set out to reconcile its design integrity, historic uses, and future goals and mission. We began the restoration work of the estate by developing a Cultural Landscape Framework Plan with the client team to identify the key contributing landscape features of the property, ensuring they were respected as we adapted the estate for new uses and goals, including a 50 percent reduction in estate water usage. CMG provided a Cultural Landscape Framework Plan, a master plan for long-term programmatic development opportunities, a reconstruction of the historic house landscape, a cottages campus reinvention, a new administration campus, and continuing design projects.

The Framework Plan identifies five Landscape Characteristics that are most critical in shaping its identity and significance. They include:

  • The designers’ creation of a sense of enclosure, limiting visual and physical access and providing a sense of immersion once inside the estate.
  • The designers’ use of landform, roadway alignments, and vegetation to create a theatrically-choreographed arrival sequence where views are carefully hidden and revealed to accentuate the drama of the experience.
  • The distinction between family and guest areas, and service areas and how these “upstairs” and “downstairs” realms manifest in separate arrival experiences, material treatments, screening devices, program spaces, and architectural character.
  • The estate as a private golf course and the peripatetic experience that it engendered. Both the program and the design commanded the natural landscape and became a setting for influential guests to relax, converse, and experience a highly controlled, artificial landscape experience in the desert.
  • The design that exemplifies the concept of “indoor-outdoor” living in Midcentury Modern California architecture.

This understanding provides a touchstone for all future landscape initiatives and allows the institution to advance its mission into the future, while being mindful of its unique past.