Inside Sunnylands: Meeting site for Obama and Chinese president has a rich, and secretive, history

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif.—If you want privacy, following in the footsteps of Richard Nixon, the queen of England and Frank Sinatra is a good idea.

The Sunnylands estate, which is playing host to President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday, has a rich history involving many other U.S. presidents and countless celebrity guests.

First completed in 1966, the 200-acre estate with its famously pink walls was used for decades by the Annenberg family. And from the very beginning, it was also a perfect getaway for the powerful political figures the Annenbergs counted among their friends.

Dwight Eisenhower was the first U.S. president to visit, and he and his wife, Mamie, enjoyed fishing and golfing excursions on the premises. Sunnylands comes equipped with its own golf course and a fully stocked fishing pond.

The private and relaxed atmosphere seems to be ideal for Obama and Xi, allowing them to conduct business and get to know each other on a personal level, free from the world spotlight.

“It sort of suits these two leaders and their personalities in important ways,” Clayton Dube, director of the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California, told Yahoo News. “They both have tried to distinguish themselves as can-do, get-it-done sorts of people less bound up with ceremony, less bound up with ritual.”

Over the years, each subsequent president has visited Sunnylands. President Nixon formed his Cabinet on site, wrote his 1974 State of the Union address there and retreated to Sunnylands after his resignation. As a testament to his close relationship with the family, he appointed Walter Annenberg as ambassador to Britain in 1969.

But no president seemed to enjoy Sunnylands as much as Ronald Reagan, who attended 18 New Year's Eve parties there and regularly used the golf course during weekend visits.

“My first memories of going there was for their New Year’s Eve parties: I played golf with President Reagan there on the 31st of December,” former secretary of state George P. Shultz told the New York Times. “It was fantastic. That became an annual event.”

A number of celebrities also spent time at Sunnylands, including Frank Sinatra, who hosted his wedding there in 1976.

A reporter once famously asked a White House aide why Reagan spent so much time at Sunnylands, to which the aide responded, “Because you're not there, and you can't get there.”

However, that top-level of privacy has been scaled back in recent years.

In 2012, the Annenberg estate opened Sunnylands to the public for tours, including the installation of a 17,000-square-foot visitors center that recounts the estate’s history. Slowly but surely, nearby residents are getting to know the venue that has been a part of world history for nearly 50 years.

“There's a mystery about the pink compound,” local restaurant owner Tom Stefernak told Yahoo News. “The residual fallout will bring some spotlight to the region,” he said. “I think it's exciting and it showcases our valley.”

Stefernak and his wife were chosen to cater a recent event at Sunnylands and said the breathtaking views and relaxed atmosphere provide an ideal setting for what the Annenbergs hope will become know as the Camp David of the West.

“The relationship that we have with China is broad and complex,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. “And it is very important for these kinds of meetings to take place for that relationship to be developed, for us to work on greater cooperation where we have been able to cooperate, find new areas to cooperate, and also confront directly those areas where we disagree.”

Max Zimberg and Torrey AndersonSchoepe contributed to this report