I am proud to be a native Californian. I can’t image calling anywhere else my home. Growing up in the Golden State has made me appreciate the diverse scenic beauty, weather, and enviable lifestyle that define the West as a première destination for people from all over the world. After all, where else can you walk on the beach, explore the wine country, and go skiing all in the same day!
Much has been written about the enticing splendor of the West, but the definitive guide to showcasing the best of the region’s offerings is Sunset magazine. For over a century, this beloved monthly journal has built a loyal readership on its reputation for finding hidden travel gems and setting styles in food, home, and garden.
I recently had the pleasure of touring Sunset’s historic property with food editor Margo True and ABC7 Executive Producer/friend Maggie Baxter. Experiencing the magazine from an insider’s perspective was a dream come true for this long time subscriber. The timing also happened to coincide with my birthday, which was the best gift imaginable!
Launched in May of 1898, Sunset began as a sixteen page pamphlet published by the Southern Pacific Railroad for its passengers. The railroad was the single largest landowner in California and Nevada at that time, and the handout was designed to promote the glories of the West in hopes tourists would be enticed to stay and buy land. It succeeded.
In 1914, the railroad sold the magazine to its employees, and Sunset became a forum for original articles, stories, and poetry romanticizing the West by literary greats like Jack London and Zane Grey.
When readership began to dwindle, it was acquired in 1928 by Lawrence Lane; a former advertising executive at Better Homes & Gardens who established the four pillars of the magazine moving forward: Home, Garden, Travel, and Food.
In 1951, the Lane family purchased a former Spanish rancho property in Menlo Park, California, that was destined to become Sunset’s permanent headquarters. They hired renowned architect Cliff May and landscape artist Thomas Church to design the California ranch style buildings and sprawling gardens that currently occupy the eight acre campus.
Today the setting is largely the same as it was first envisioned, and reflects the popular indoor/outdoor living style that is Sunset’s signature. The main offices, which center around an expansive courtyard, have glossy terra-cotta pavers and floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open to the outdoors. This easy-living flow from interior to exterior was pioneered by the magazine.
The beautifully manicured gardens are living snapshots of various regional ecosystems and the diverse plants that characterize each. Meandering paths flanking the landscape reflect the bordering creek and mirror the shape of the Pacific coast.
True’s tour takes us on a stroll through it all. We peruse the demonstration garden that inspired Sunset’s One Block Feast and pitted neighborhoods across the West in an ultimate locavore competition to see who could raise all the ingredients for a seasonal menu in backyard plots.
The garden’s planter boxes are brimming with summer vegetables, berries, and herbs interspersed with brightly colored perennial flowers and native plants. A massive arched grape arbor leads to a “pizza garden” where vine ripened tomatoes and herbs await transformation in a nearby terra-cotta oven.
A small potting shed nearby provides a staging area for succulents, while in the rear, a chicken coop still houses a lone hen that is the last survivor of the original brood.
Entering the main building, we stroll down corridors lined with vintage magazine art on our way to the indoor test kitchens, but detour for a peek inside True’s favorite room: the Archive. This space houses every published edition in Sunset’s impressive 117 year history. She pulls a random volume from one of the upper shelves and opens it to reveal the mostly black & white pages of an issue from the 1940s. Complete with illustrated advertisements for a “Big Squeeze” juice extractor, Chicken of the Sea tuna, and a full-page color promo touting the latest model Studebaker, it is a fascinating glimpse into American history through the eyes of the magazine.
Continuing on our way, we pass the editorial staff at work and stop to admire wine editor Sara Schneider’s impressive collection of vintages which has completely overtaken her office and spills out into the hallway.
The test kitchens are designed to simulate a homey workspace the magazine’s audience can relate to. Recipes under consideration are made multiple times by different cooks using a variety of equipment before making the final cut. On this day the staff cooks have gathered fingerling potatoes, fresh heirloom tomatoes, and olive oil to transform into a seasonal dish.
There is also a row of storage closets filled with serveware for staging the finished dishes, and a modest walk-in pantry with staples and stock items. It is culinary heaven!
Nearby, a large courtyard houses the outdoor demonstration kitchen. Designed for competitions and entertaining, the space has built-in grilling stations, flowing countertops with sinks for prep, and a substantial wood-fire oven at one end. Seating areas weave around an edible landscape of fresh herbs, Meyer lemon and pineapple guava trees to illustrate the connection from garden to table.
Sadly, Sunset’s long-time residence will soon be a memory. The magazine is being uprooted at the end of this year following the sale of its land by parent company Time-Warner. There is a silver lining in the move. The magazine’s business offices will find a new home in Oakland’s Jack London Square, but the test kitchens and gardens will relocate to nearby Sonoma County at the nine-acre Cornerstone Gardens property. Since I live about fifteen minutes away in neighboring Marin, this development has me jumping for joy!
Welcome to the North Bay, Sunset. May you find your new home worthy of this chapter in your legacy.