When it comes to presidential history, most people think of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or elsewhere in our nation’s capitol. Perhaps images of places like Mount Vernon, Hyannis Port, Kennebunkport, or even Mar-a-Lago come to mind.
But it’s southern California that’s home to not one but two presidential libraries – the only such institutions west of the Rockies (out of a total of 14).
Not only that, but U.S. presidents have spent a lot of time in SoCal, whether living, vacationing, or working remotely from here – from Orange County to the Inland Empire and the Santa Ynez Mountains. And many other U.S. presidents have managed to leave their mark in other ways – even if their visits were only brief.
Here are seven of the best ways to experience the presidential side of SoCal – no matter what your party affiliation or political proclivities may be.
1. Sunnylands, Rancho Mirage
What Camp David has been to U.S. presidents and other dignitaries on the East Coast, Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage has been on the West Coast. It's no wonder that U.S. presidents like to come to here – because, after all, what more peaceful or relaxing place is there to meet to discuss international relations, AIDS research, and homeland security? It’s certainly welcoming -- the kind of place where you could put your differences aside and really get something done. Richard Nixon retreated to Sunnylands after resigning from the presidency in disgrace, while Reagan celebrated multiple New Year's Eve celebrations there. (They still keep a dish of jellybeans out for him.)
But Sunnylands wasn't built as a facility for politics or even political recreation — not originally, anyway. Formerly known as the “Annenberg Estate,” it was simply the winter residence of Walter Annenberg, the creator of TV Guide and Seventeen magazine, and his wife Leonore, who stayed there five months out of the year from 1966 to 2009. There, the Annenbergs entertained U.S. presidents (seven in total), fellow ambassadors, and celebrities like Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and the like — sharing their oasis in a grand gesture of hospitality. They always wanted their estate to "be used to advance world peace,” but also that the public would have access to it — which is what happened in 2012, when it opened its doors and civilians could finally see what’s “behind the pink wall.”
2. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley
Whether you remember Reagan’s presidency, and whether you admired him as an actor or a politician, you’ve got to acknowledge the impact that he made not only on Hollywood but also the State of California (as governor from 1967 to 1975) and the U.S. government, having served two terms at the White House and more or less opening the door for his V.P., George H.W. Bush, to assume his position in the Oval Office and for President Bush’s son George W. Bush to do the same eight years later! But the interesting thing about the Reagan Presidential Library is that it’s not all about politics. Sure, there’s plenty of time and space devoted to the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall (and the negotiations with Gorbachev that led up to that historic event), but much of the focus here is on Ronald Reagan the man. Through his personal diary entries and his love letters to his First Lady, Nancy, you get to know the personal side of Reagan – the man who loved to ride horses, wear cowboy hats and boots, and collect Western-style belt buckles. You can pay your respects to both of them at the Memorial Site, adjacent to the reproduction of the South Lawn of the White House.
Although the library contains a number of artifacts — from campaign propaganda to a section of the Berlin Wall — the pièce de résistance is the Air Force One Pavilion, where you can see and board the fully equipped, commercial-sized jet that carried the president (along with his staffers and members of the media) around the world. Some of it looks charmingly outdated now — like the typewriter that Reagan’s speechwriter used — but the amount of comforts it provided is actually quite impressive, with two galleys (equipped to make a steak dinner and bake a cake) and a full communications panel. After all, it had to be, if it was going to function as “The Flying White House” and not just for Reagan, but also Nixon, Ford, Carter, Clinton, and both Bushes. The pavilion is frequently used for special events, so call ahead to make sure it will be open when you get there.
3. The Reagan Ranch Center, Santa Barbara
If Sunnylands was the Camp David of the West, Rancho del Cielo was the Mount Vernon of the Reagan presidency. But since President Reagan’s California vacation home of three decades (1974-1995) is currently owned by Young America’s Foundation and not open to the public, the next-best thing is the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara, which pays tribute to the time he spent at the so-called “Western White House.” In addition to a section of the Berlin Wall, you can also view exhibits on our 40th president’s daily activities while at his ranch — which included chopping and sawing wood, clearing brush, riding horses, and performing regular Oval Office duties (including signing the Economic Recovery Tax Act in 1981 and meeting with heads of state). This is also where “The Great Communicator” was when he had to address the public after several tragedies during his two terms — including the crash of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by Soviet fire in 1983, the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that same year, and the Challenger disaster in 1986. The Secret Service even had its own compound there.
4. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda
Perhaps the biggest claim to fame of the tiny town of Yorba Linda is as the birthplace of President Richard Nixon – and at the Nixon Presidential Library, you can actually visit the house where he lived for the first nine years of his life, now both a state and national landmark. But beyond strolling through our 37th President’s boyhood home, at the Nixon Library you can also time-travel back to the late 1960s and early 1970s — a time of civil unrest and protest, the Vietnam War, and a policy of détente in the tensions that characterized the Cold War, which was then in its third decade.
In the library’s collection you’ll find propaganda from the campaign that got him elected in the Fall of 1968 and 1972 (the latter, by a landslide). You can also peruse some declassified archives relating to the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal. And, as at the Reagan Library, you can also visit a reproduction of the Oval Office — but this one, of course, from the era of Nixon’s presidency. And one of the best times to visit is in the Christmas season, when the entire library and museum is decked out for the holidays — a tribute to First Lady Pat Nixon and her enthusiasm for the spirit of the season (including her infamous annual tradition of erecting giant gingerbread houses). That’s also when the library stays open late for its special Candlelight Evenings events, which feature musical performances, toy trains, and photos with Santa.
5. The Mission Inn Hotel and Spa, Riverside
The Mission Inn in Riverside, California was never actually a mission, but it kind of looks like one — right down to the bell tower. It started, though, as a tiny boarding house founded by the Miller family, who'd moved to the Inland Empire from Wisconsin in the late 1800s to build a water system in Riverside. Frank Miller took over the property and by 1903 had turned it into a full-fledged hotel, then known as the Glenwood. He built it wing by wing, in a variety of architectural styles inspired by Miller’s travels to Europe and Asia — until eventually taking over an entire city block. It’s the kind of place you want to get lost in — just to see where you'll end up.
To witness the Mission Inn’s role in presidential history, go to the end of the lobby to the former presidential suite, which was once occupied by Taft, Roosevelt, Ford, Bush, and JFK and was where Nixon got married. It’s since been converted into the Presidential Lounge, so stop and have a drink there. That’s also where you’ll find a wooden armchair custom made to fit President William Howard Taft, who weighed a hefty 350 pounds and yet initially balked at the chair’s oversized dimensions and refused to sit in it. (Now, you can sit in it for a photo opportunity.) All of this is located in publicly accessible areas — but to get the full experience of the entire Inn, it’s best to take a docent-led tour — and be sure to leave some extra time to visit the Museum.
6. Battleship Iowa Museum, San Pedro
The USS Iowa was the lead ship of the last class of battleships in the Navy, having served in three significant commissions: World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War. She had the biggest guns on any U.S. Navy ship, used primarily for anti-aircraft missions: the nine 16-inch guns mounted on three stacked turrets that you can see today (capable of carrying 2,000 tons of firepower). Japanese projectiles hit the Iowa in 1944, but fortunately not do much damage. Now that the warship is permanently moored at the L.A. Harbor and open as a museum, the cruise missiles have been cleared, the hull has been cleaned, and the anchors have been dropped. But she's still painted "haze gray," and she still carries some traces of the presidents who spent time aboard the ship.
Once called the "Battleship of Presidents," the Iowa hosted the most U.S. Commanders-in-Chief than any other battleship in U.S. history — including FDR, who spent a month on board in transit to and from the Tehran Conference. A custom bathtub that had been installed to make it accessible for the disabled POTUS can still be seen on select tours, as can the barbershop on the Third Deck where George H.W. Bush was famously photographed getting a haircut. You can visit the barbershop on one of the monthly dates of the “Curator’s Tour”; and thanks to the museum’s semi-annual Barbershop Day, you, too, can get your hair cut in the very same spot as the elder Bush.
Bonus: If you still can’t get enough of Reagan, make a pilgrimage to Forest Lawn Glendale, where you can visit the storybook wedding chapel known as the Week Kirk O’ the Heather, designed as an exact replica of an actual church in Scotland. That’s where Ronnie married his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, in 1940 (a dozen years before exchanging vows with Nancy Davis, to whom he became engaged at Chasen’s Restaurant, now Bristol Farms on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles).