Selling Sunset Headquarters: A Landmark of Environmental Design

Time Inc., the owner of Sunset Magazine, has just announced it is exploring the sale of Sunset‘s historic seven acre campus in Menlo Park, California. I can understand why — the land, which is in the very heart of Silicon Valley, not far

47 Sunset Joe Fletcher patio view

from Stanford University and just a mile or two down Willow Road from Facebook — is undoubtedly worth surpassing Silicon sums (photo by Joe Fletcher). But, speaking as Sunset‘s former senior home editor who wrote a book

24 Sunset cover

about ranch house popularizer Cliff May, the designer of the building (here’s an early Cliff May ranch house on the magazine’s cover), I very much hope that whoever purchases the property understands its significance as an early and influential example of environmental design. Here’s the back story.

43 Sunset buliding garden plan

The original building, from 1951, is at the corner of Willow and Middlefield Roads. Owner Larry Lane told Cliff May: “The building itself must be definitely WESTERN in its general structure and in the material used and in the feeling and atmosphere which it creates. It must give the feeling of belonging to the site. In short , the kind of building that an easterner having read Sunset for a long time and making his first trip to California would expect to see.” At the same time Lane hired San Francisco’s most famous landscape architect, Thomas Church, to design the gardens and specified he wanted an emphasis on native planting and informality “so that the whole area has the appearance of having naturally grown that way.” The result was a remarkable early example ofIMG_6650environmental design — the corporate campus precursor to Apple, Google, and Facebook. (And at Sunset we had in-house kitchens and even a wine cellar decades before Pixar’s “Cereal Bar” or Twitter’s “Micro Health Kitchen.”) The building is an over-scaled, roughly 30,000 square foot ranch house that wraps around a huge lawn extending toward San Francisquito Creek, which is the border between Menlo Park and Palo Alto. The gardens loop around the lawn (like a well thrown lariat, naturally!) following the creek, creating a metaphoric Pacific Coast with plantings representing each of the magazine’s editorial regions


from the Northwest to the Southwest. The front door is in a closed facade — open it and you “are almost outside again” with a view that runs through the glass 44 Sunset lobby

walled lobby to the very edge of the garden by the creek: a seven acre living room that’s mostly outdoors. Test gardens, test kitchens, and an entertainment wing 45 Sunset patio with table

(shown here) were all added over the years — each element extending the ranch house esthetic and Sunset‘s mission to be both “the magazine and laboratory of western living.” A similarly detailed courtyard building for the books division of Lane Publishing was added across the road at 85 Willow in the 1960s (photos above by Joe Fletcher).

Frank Lloyd Wright toured 80 Willow in 1954 on his way to lecturing at Stanford. Here he is in his signature pork pie hat on the doorstep being

48 Sunset with FLWright

welcomed by Larry Lane’s sons Mel, at far left and Bill at far right, with editor Proctor Mellquist in the striped tie. Later at Stanford, after dismissing the building’s uneven terra-cotta tile floors and the use of adobe for some walls as sentimental, Wright remarked: “It’s well planned, and the ideas are good, and the proportions are simple and I would say it’s one of the best efforts I’ve seen in modern times.” Needless to say the Lanes — and Cliff May — were very pleased.

So, with all that land seemingly almost empty in a time of rapid change and superheated real estate value, how can such a place survive? Even if it became the headquarters for a major foundation, an enclave of Stanford University, or a satellite extension of a high-tech company, pressure to maximize the acreage would be intense. But thoughtful, even extensive, additions and updates that respect its history are certainly possible. An imaginative owner and city administration working with a talented design team should be up to the task. The alternative would be dismaying and a terrible loss. One solution might be to make a deal somehow to sacrifice the north building at 85 Willow in order to save key elements of the main building and grounds at 80 Willow. And then there is the realization that the magazine itself will probably need to move! Lots to think about. I hope you can visit this California landmark before it’s too late. Sunset’s garden is open to the public 9 a.m. to 4 p. m. Monday through Friday.


19 responses to “Selling Sunset Headquarters: A Landmark of Environmental Design

  1. Thank you for this Dan.

  2. Patrick M. Mitchell

    I’m mortified. I’ve been a life-long lover of Sunset: first via the Sunset Garden Book while living in a much different climate, through discovering the food and lifestyle through your magazine as a subscriber for many (many) years. I moved to California in 2006 and, as much as I enjoyed seeing the Golden Gate Bridge, driving down 101 or watching the fog roll in for the first time, I can truly say nothing was more exciting to me than first passing your headquarters in Menlo Park, quite by accident. “There”, I thought. There is where all my excitement regarding the California +Western lifestyle began. And now it will be gone. Truly a sad, sad day. I can only imagine the wretched Mid-Sorta-Century-Tuscaterranean condos that will likely take your place. A pox on Time, Inc. and the relentless march into mediocrity.

  3. I grew up in Southern California and on Sunset, absorbing its almost mythic representation of the Western lifestyle. Now living in Portland, it took a Garden Bloggers ‘Fling’ event to get me there for a visit in the summer of 2013 – I’m so glad I finally saw it.

  4. Just let the new owners try to do anything. Half the lawyers in Silicon Valley along with all the political activists would tie things up for decades. Best if Time keeps it and maybe add more functions to it. And good Lord, do not sell it to HGTV or the ilk, they’ll want to “improve” it with the usual schlock.

  5. Great post and heads up. Will stop by for a visit when down for the LA Auto Show.

  6. The buildings and setting is an icon for Sunset. But understand why a new location is in order. Might I suggest the former COPIA location in the Napa!
    It would be a perfect fit!

  7. All it tells me is that Time’s greed is showing. This is bad!

  8. As iconic as any significant site in all of California. Why not a historic landmark. Must everything be about the almighty dollar? Come on Time Inc. make a smart social decision!

  9. I am proud to say I once owned a Cliff May home. The only one designed in San Bernardino, CA. We lived there for 13 years and loved the ranch design slung over a one half acre corner lot.

  10. I need to move this one up on my bucket list!

  11. I was able to visit the headquarters during the Sunset Celebration Weekend this past May, and I have to say I actually cried because I was so overcome with emotion and joy. It was like going to the “Mother Ship” for me – I am trained as a landscape Architect, love mid-century design, am an avid cook and crafter – in my youth I used to dream about working for Sunset (I even was an editor of my college department’s magazine because I thought it might get me one foot in the door at Sunset). Being on that campus felt like being at home, and I will be very sad if it gets torn down and made into yet another cookie-cutter condo complex as is happening with most of the Peninsula/Silicon Valley. I am all for progress, but sometimes history should take precedence. If you have not yet been to see it, go! You won’t be disappointed.

  12. Hey, I am a veteran architect in East Bay and have worked for Cliff at the end of his career and was just in Santa Barbara. If you ranch building people want some of that same timeless native ranch design I am a licensed man with 25 years. Still drawing with a pencil. 650 984 0400. Surprised to see so much activity on this architecture. In a good way, of course.

  13. Pingback: Sunset magazine’s iconic headquarters, garden are sold | Newsweep

  14. Hi Dan, What a delightful surprise for me to find your blog on Sunset. I was there last week taking a walk down memory lane in the building and gardens with Rick LaFrentz as my tour guide. Great memories. Your blog is a wonderful synopsis of the building history with outstanding photos! Thank you so much for writing it. ..I hope as you do that the new owners will do try and keep the building & garden intact somehow.

  15. Many thanks to Sunset Staff, for a thrilling opportunity to tour the house and gardens on an otherwise closed day, back a few years ago. Put my wife Jennifer on Cloud 9. As an architectural appraiser in Los Angeles, I have been fortunate to have appraised a few custom original Cliff May homes, and it always takes my breath away. To then see the Sunset building, was so inspiring. We have so much heritage, with Cliff Mays, Joseph Eichlers, Richard Neutras, John Lautners, and even, yes, Frank Lloyd Wrights amongst us. Please let me know if I can help in any way.

  16. Scott Fitzgerrell

    Nice article, Dan. Thanks for the heads up! I guess it was only a matter of time. My wife has never seen the place, so we’d netter get going.

    I hope you’re done my well.


  17. Dan, thank you for the excellent article. I’m saddened to hear that Sunset sold its iconic headquarters in Menlo Park. After Time purchased Sunset, the magazine seemed to lose a little bit of its heart each month. Growing up, my parents were longtime subscribers. I continued that tradition until Sunset became like any other lifestyle publication and then didn’t renew. While I am a big fan of Oakland, the decision to move from the extraordinary Menlo Park campus pulls the soul right out. Sunset was an institution. Now its just a magazine.

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