The meeting between Pres. Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping today at the presidential resort, Sunnylands, in Palm Springs has drawn attention to the acclaimed design of the estate, which was originally the winter home of Walter and Lenore Annenberg:
Designed by the prolific Los Angeles architect A. Quincy Jones and the decorator William Haines and finished in 1966, Sunnylands was inspired by Mayan ruins even as it accommodated elements of Midcentury Modernism and the Annenbergs’ own Asian antiquities and lacquered furniture.
On a choice site with views of the Chocolate Mountains, the house in Rancho Mirage has been a center for high-powered entertaining from its earliest days. Guests included Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon — seven current or former presidents have visited Sunnylands in all — along with Queen Elizabeth, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra.
William Haines is remembered now as the interior decorator to the stars — he did all the homes of his best friend, Joan Crawford, for example. But Haines began his career in Hollywood as an actor. He was the “King of MGM” in the mid- and late 1920s, long before Clark Gable arrived on the scene. But by the mid-1930s he was out after he refused repeated demands by MGM chief Louis B. Mayer that he give up his gay life — and his longtime companion Jimmy Steers — find a willing accomplice and marry her.
After making a few low budget films for studios in Poverty Row, Haines decided to change careers. He had long been interested in interior design. In fact, at the peak of his career, with a partner he had opened an antique shop on La Brea Avenue. He reformulated the business as William Haines Design, moved into a building he had remodeled at 8720 Sunset Blvd. [map], in the exclusive Sunset Plaza section of the Sunset Strip, and began a highly successful career as Hollywood’s go-to interior decorator. (The Haines studio building later housed the power lunch spot, Le Dome.)
Haines, along with his associate Ted Graber, was commissioned by the Annenbergs to design the interiors of the 25,000 square-foot home in 1963.
Walter Annenberg was the publisher of TV Guide and the Daily Racing Form. Lenore Annenberg was the niece of Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn. In 2012, Sunnlyands was opened to the public, and as a presidential level retreat.
Haines and Jimmy Steers lived together for over 50 years, until Haines’ death in 1973.