Sunnylands Center & Gardens in Rancho Mirage, California is an extension of the 200-acre desert retreat of publisher, diplomat, and philanthropist Ambassador Walter Annenberg and his wife Leonore. In the mid-1960s, the Annenbergs hired Los Angeles-based architect A. Quincy Jones to create a Midcentury Modern residence in Rancho Mirage. In 2006, the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands commissioned The Office of James Burnett to design the Gardens for an interpretive center that tells the story of the Annenbergs and their commitment to serving their country, to philanthropy, to education, and to the arts.
Sustainability figured prominently into planning and design of the project and the Center has achieved LEED Gold Certification. In addition to the selection of regionally-appropriate plants, the project features a desert habitat, high-efficiency capillary irrigation system, soil moisture monitoring, storm water retention, geothermal wells, a solar field, and a green waste recycling program. The project also proactively meets the specifications and requirements for the use of reclaimed water ahead of the implementation of Rancho Mirage’s citywide initiative.
Working closely with Mrs. Annenberg, James Burnett and his team developed a scheme that transitions from an orderly, geometric composition adjacent to the Center and becomes progressively more organic and free flowing as one moves further into the Gardens. Burnett sculpted the earth and used more than 53,000 plants and trees in a painterly fashion across the landscape. The Gardens were carefully conceived to provide varied experiences with the seasons. Trees were strategically positioned throughout the site to ensure that ample shade is provided. Care was given to the placement and visual composition of understory plantings.
The Gardens connect to the historic estate through the use of similar features such as the entry monument walls and gates. A generous entry drive meanders through a series of rich, undulating desert plantings before delivering visitors to a formal entry court anchored by specimen Sweet Acacia. After dropping off their passengers, guests park their vehicles in a formal landscaped parking court integrated into a grove of hybrid mesquite trees and proceed along a pedestrian promenade to the main entry.
In collaboration with architect Frederick Fisher and Partners, the Center building was sited to frame panoramic western views of the 10,000-foot-plus San Jacinto Mountains. Inside the Center, guests explore a variety of exhibits including those that address design, construction, and sustainable features of the Gardens. A terrace along the west side of the building extends the Café and lobby into the landscape and accommodates special events. Complementing the crisp architectural composition, twin stainless reflecting pools mirror the expansive desert sky, lower the ambient temperature, and provide the soothing sound of running water.
Sized specifically to support large event programming, a Great Lawn is the central organizing feature of the west garden. Framed by a double row of Desert Museum palo verde trees, the promenade walk connects guests to a series of private gardens that feature quiet seating nooks, rich desert plantings, and a labyrinth for contemplation.
Throughout the Gardens, Leonore Annenberg’s love of the Sunnylands’ yellow is punctuated in springtime when the palo verde trees erupt with blooms. Thornless mesquite and palo brea trees provide protective shade to arid-landscape plants. Geometric grids of golden barrel cacti spines become backlit against the dramatic desert sunsets and sunrise, capturing the shifting light. Throughout the Gardens are serene places to sit, relax, and enjoy nature.