President Obama meets PM Lee Hsien Loong and Asean leaders in Sunnylands: 7 things about the California estate

Front view of Sunnylands Centre at dusk. Mount San Jacinto looms in the background.
Front view of Sunnylands Centre at dusk. Mount San Jacinto looms in the background.PHOTO: THE ANNENBERG FOUNDATION TRUST AT SUNNYLANDS

For the first time, Asean leaders will be holding a two-day summit in the United States, and President Barack Obama will host PM Lee Hsien Loong and the other leaders at the Sunnylands estate in California from Feb 15 to 16.

The 81ha resort has become Mr Obama’s venue of choice not just for diplomacy, but also for a favourite pastime – golf.

The historic grounds was where former US President Richard Nixon retreated to when he resigned in 1973; where another President, Ronald Reagan, spent many New Year’s eves; and where crooner Frank Sinatra got married.

Here’s more about the “Camp David” of the West Coast:

1. Where is it?

The secluded Sunnylands resort is located in Rancho Mirage and is near to Palm Springs in California. It is about 188km east of Los Angeles.

2. Who built it?

Mr Walter and Mrs Leonare Annenberg (with Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh). PHOTO: SUNNYLANDS.ORG

Sunnylands was built in 1966 by late billionaire publisher, philanthropist and diplomat Walter Annenberg and his wife Leonore.

The Annenbergs used it as a winter retreat, and entertained presidents, senior US government officials, celebrities and royalty while they resided there.

“It’s hard to think of another American private house where so many important people came together to socialise, exchange ideas, and influence one another in a totally secluded and relaxed atmosphere,” said a feature in Vanity Fair in 2012.

Mr Annenberg died in 2002, and his wife in 2009. The remains of the couple rest in a pink mausoleum in Sunnylands.

They willed the property to a family trust in hopes that presidents and other high-ranking US government officials would use it to foster international diplomacy. Besides being a retreat for leaders, in 2012, it was opened to the public.

3. Who has been there?

President Barack Obama with President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China in June 2013.  PHOTO: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO

The spacious estate has 22 bedrooms for guests in a sprawling 25,000 sq ft house, three cottages and the Annenberg suite, reserved for visiting presidents and heads of state.

Eight United States presidents have visited, including Dwight Eisenhower, Nixon, Gerald Ford, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Mr Obama.

Mr Obama first visited when he hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 for a “shirt-sleeves” summit. In 2014, he met King Abdullah II of Jordan there for talks.

In the heyday of the Annenbergs, their New Year’s eve parties were wildly popular. The Reagans and Queen Elizabeth II were guests, and so were celebrities like Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Truman Capote.

Sinatra married his fourth wife, Barbara, there in 1976. They were together until his death in 1998.

4. What can you see & do there?


Mr Obama has been to Sunnylands many times since 2013, and landed there two days before the US-Asean summit to hit a few balls.

The nine-hole private gold course at Sunnylands is considered one of the best in the US. It can be played as an 18-hole course, if golfers retrace their steps and play different shots.

There are also 11 lakes, a tennis court, a swimming pool, many walking paths, and a garden full of desert plants and wildlife.

There are numerous art works on display including Rodin sculptures Eve, and Eternal Spring. The Annenberg’s extensive collection of Impressionistic paintings were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but digital reproductions of the all paintings now hang in their place.

In the Room of Memories hang the photos of visitors and 40 framed Christmas cards from Queen Elizabeth II. The public can now see these on guided tours of the house.

The whole estate is now closed until Feb 20 for the Asean meeting.

5. Why Sunnylands?

US President Barack Obama arrives in Palm Springs California February 12, 2016. Obama is expected to spend much of the weekend golfing and will then host leaders of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Monday and Tuesday at the Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage. PHOTO: REUTERS

Analysts say that the Obama administration is conferring Asean leaders the same honour that he did Chinese President Xi.

“From a leader’s perspective, it’s now seen as an honour for the president to invite you to Sunnylands,” said Mr Tom Donilon, former national security adviser in the New York Times. “It has global cachet.”

Others note that it is a convenient alternative to the White House as Mr Obama will be hosting leaders of countries who are seen by Americans to be undemocratic, such as Laos and Cambodia.

It is also a place where the leaders could build closer ties away from the formalities of Washington.

Dr Tommy Koh wrote in a commentary published on Saturday (Feb 13): “I hope the summit in Sunnylands will offer an opportunity for the American and Asean leaders to go beyond their scripted remarks and have a heart-to-heart talk on the pressing issues of our region and of the world.”

6. What's on the agenda this time?


The first day of the summit is scheduled to focus on economic issues and trade, including discussion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, which includes four of the Asean members: Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia. 

Others are interested in joining, and the White House wants to make sure the pact goes into effect, AFP said. 

On Tuesday, the leaders will discuss maritime issues including the South China Sea, where China and several South-east Asian states have conflicting and overlapping claims.

Not all the leaders will be there, the leaders of Vietnam and Myanmar have elected to send deputies instead.

7. Obama Connection?


Since 2013, Mr Obama has visited the estate six times both officially and unofficially.

When First Lady Michelle Obama visited Sunnylands with her husband in 2014, it prompted rumours that the Obamas were looking for a place in Rancho Mirage after they leave the White House. She is not with Mr Obama on this trip. 

Palm Springs daily The Desert Sun said that the town’s mayor Steve Pougnet met Mr Obama when he arrived on Saturday and encouraged him to buy a home there.

He would not be the first former president to end up there – Ford and Eisenhower both retired in the area.