Xi and Obama meeting represents pinnacle of Sunnylands' mission

The Chinese and US presidents retreat to a remarkable Californian home this weekend that was destined to a centre of international diplomacy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 June, 2013, 4:43am

Xi Jinping's arrival at the Sunnylands estate in California yesterday put him in the footsteps of royalty, seven US presidents and a host of other leaders who have beaten a path to the marble doorstep of Walter Annenberg, the late publishing tycoon, philanthropist and diplomat.

Beyond the hospitality of a magnificent home - the 25,000 sq ft masterpiece that was the Annenbergs' winter home is surely that - the 80-hectare compound outside Palm Springs offers a priceless commodity to its powerful guests: privacy.

The compound's managers see it as nothing less than a Californian Camp David. The two-day summit between Xi and US President Barack Obama will be the estate's highest-profile retreat since it reopened in March, more than a decade after Annenberg and his wife, Leonore, outlined their high hopes for the property in a trust.

Annenberg, who made billions from TV Guide, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other publications, wanted the estate to provide leaders with "the pause", as he put it, to solve the world's weightiest problems .

"We are profoundly honoured that President Obama has chosen Sunnylands as the venue for this important meeting," said Geoffrey Cowan, president of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands.

"Walter and Leonore Annenberg were remarkable philanthropists and diplomats who hoped that their estate could become a 'Camp David of the West' where the president would meet world leaders to promote global peace and facilitate international agreements.

"The upcoming meeting between President Obama and President Xi begins to fulfil that vision, which is continued by their children and grandchildren who serve as our trustees."

To mark the summit, Sunnylands recently launched a Chinese-language version of its website, including a Putonghua video report by Voice of America, explaining the history of the estate and its mission.

Annenberg, who was ambassador to Britain from 1969 to 1974 during the Nixon presidency, was one of the foremost cross-cultural networkers of his generation. Sunnylands - with its high pink walls and private golf course - was integral to his status.

Recipients of Sunnylands' legendary hospitality ranged from the "Ratpack" of 1960s Hollywood actors to Queen Elizabeth, whom the Annenbergs counted as a personal friend and was a repeat visitor to the estate. Her Christmas cards line the walls of one room.

Ronald Reagan spent every New Year's Eve of his presidency at Sunnylands, playing golf and sharing sing-along with the likes of Bob and Dolores Hope. Frank Sinatra married his fourth wife, Barbara, on the estate, and in 1990, president George H.W. Bush hosted a state dinner at Sunnylands for Japanese prime minister Toshiki Kaifu, "one of the few occasions in history where a state dinner was held outside the White House", according to the estate's managers.

Obama will be the eighth US president to spend nights there.

Completed in 1966, the main home was designed in the mid-century modernist style by architect A. Quincy Jones with interiors by William Haines and Ted Graber. Its design is a pinnacle of a storied era in design, lovingly recreated by the likes of the television serie s Mad Men .

For all the marble and Picassos, the home's lines are sleek and simple, something Annenberg himself wanted from the home where he would spent five months of the year.

When Queen Elizabeth arrived for her 1983 visit, Annenberg reputedly announced she would "see how ordinary Americans live".

"Traditionally, great estates have been built in historic styles," Los Angeles architect Frederick Fisher is quoted as saying by Sunnylands. "So it was a bold move on the part of the Annenbergs to bring in a modernist architect (Jones) to design Sunnylands, one of the great and arguably the only purely modernist estate in the United States."

In addition to the main house and golf course, the estate boasts three cottages, 11 lakes stocked with bass (Bush supposedly kept a fishing rod by his bed at Sunnydale), and a 17,000 sq ft museum that is open to the public .

The centre was completed in 2011, two years after the death of Leonore Annenberg. Walter died in 2002, and both are buried on the estate.

After Leonore's death, Sunnydale passed into the ownership of the couple's charitable foundation, which was tasked with putting it to use as "a place of tranquillity and hospitality where national and international leaders from a range of fields - beginning with the president of the United States - may convene". The Xi-Obama summit represents the culmination of their efforts.

The foundation also furthers the Annenberg philanthropic legacy that includes a 1993 donation of US$500 million towards US public education, at the time one of the greatest charitable donations ever made.

Upon Walter Annenberg's death, his vast collection of French Impressionist art, worth more than US$1 billion, was donated to New York's Museum of Modern Art.


Previous guests at Sunnylands

US presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush

Royalty: Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, Prince Charles, Princess Grace of Monaco, the family of the Shah of Iran

World leaders: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu

Entertainers: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck



January 28-February 5, 1979

Deng Xiaoping , in his capacity as vice-premier, becomes the first state leader of the People's Republic to pay an official visit to the United States. The Taiwan issue was high on the agenda during Deng's meeting with then-US president Jimmy Carter.

July 22 - 31, 1985

President Li Xiannian kicks off the first state visit to the US by a head of state of the People's Republic.

November 19, 1993

Jiang Zemin meets his US counterpart Bill Clinton on the sidelines of the Apec meeting in Seattle, the first Sino-US leaders' meeting since 1989.

October 26 - November 3, 1997

Jiang pays a state visit to the US, putting bilateral relations back on track. Jiang and Clinton said in a joint communiqué that "China and the United States have major differences on the question of human rights. At the same time, they also have great potential for co-operation in maintaining global and regional peace and stability; promoting world economic growth …"

October 22 - 25, 2002

Jiang makes a working visit to US President George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, to discuss Iraq and North Korea. The visit came weeks before he handed over the party's helm to Hu Jintao .

April 18-21, 2006

President Hu Jintao makes what Beijing, but not the White House, considers to be a state visit to Washington.

January 18-21, 2011

Hu Jintao makes a state visit to Washington and Chicago, meets President Barack Obama and is received at the White House with full honours.