Sunnylands: Behind the pink walls

POSTED: 05:16 PM PDT Jun 03, 2013    UPDATED: 05:16 PM PDT Jun 03, 2013 

Preparations are in full swing for President Obama's first visit to the desert.  Mr. Obama will meet with China's President Xi Jinping at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage June 7-8.
We begin our week-long coverage of this meeting of the two presidents by taking you behind the pink walls.

Walter and Leonore Annenberg came to the desert in 1963.     

"The Annenbergs wanted to build a winter home," said Janice Lyle, director of Sunnylands Center and Gardens.

But not just any home, a 200-acre sanctuary.  It was to be not just for them, but also for their friends.

"You are surrounded by beauty and lushness and serenity and so you have that chance to let that bigger picture just be apart of your thinking," said Lyle.

As a U.S. ambassador, Annenberg's friends were some of the most influential people in the world.

"Their very first official visitor was President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife in 1966.  So starting from the very beginning of their occupancy, they included people who were their friends who had positions of power throughout the United States," said Lyle.

Seven presidents have stayed on the grounds, fished in the 11 man-made lakes and played golf on the nine-hole course.

"The Queen of England came in 1983.  Many members of British Royalty have been here and in addition of course, all of the entertainment figures of the mid to late 20th century, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, Dinah Shore, they've all been here," said Lyle.

In fact Sunnylands was where Frank and Barbara Sinatra were married.  The estate wasn't just a place to relax, it was also a place to reflect.
"It's kind of like being on the balcony and looking down at the dance floor and deciding how the steps should  work," said Lyle.

As time went on, more and more high-level politicians used Sunnylands as a place to shape the country.

"This place provided an escape from business and formal meetings, so it was more informal and relaxed but many important things happened here within that informality," said Lyle.

In 1974, President Richard Nixon wrote his State of the Union address on the grounds.

"During the Reagan years, a number of meetings between President Ronald Reagan and any number of his staff, cabinet, Secretary of State George Shultz, there were numbers of meetings and they would discuss policy issues here that would later become changes in the political situation," said Lyle.

In 1990, President George H. W. Bush hosted a state dinner in honor of Japan's Prime Minister.  It was one of the few occasions in history where a state dinner was held outside the White House.

Sunnylands also has a connection to China.  They have several historical artifacts displayed throughout the grounds.

"The Annenbergs loved that Chinese art and Chinese history," said Geoffrey Cowan, president Annenberg Foundation Trust.

There is also a Chinese pavilion on the grounds where the estate's guests would stop for lunch while playing golf.

It was the Annenberg's dream for this to be a place where the leaders of the Pacific Rim could come together to solve issues facing the region.  

"People could have informal, quite meetings where they would really get to know each other and get past the clique's of the day and the hustle of the day," said Cowan.

The Annenbergs didn't want Sunnylands to die with them, they wanted it to be apart of the future.  In 2012, the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands officially opened, allowing the public behind the famed pink walls for the first time.  It also began hosting retreats, including the this week's historic meeting with President Obama and China's President Xi Jinping.

"It accomplishes the Annenburgs' own dream that this would be a 'Camp David of the West,' where informal conversations between world leaders could take place," said Cowan.

This will be President Obama's first visit to the estate and the highest level meeting to take place on the grounds.

"It will establish on the world stage with both the American and Chinese communities as a place where an iconic meeting took place where people will want to come and learn about that meeting," said Cowan.

Because of the importance of this historic visit, News Channel 3 and CBS Local 2 will be combining our resources to bring you complete live coverage.  Look for special reports all this week on both station's newscasts and continuing coverage of this history making event on Friday and Saturday.