BOOK OF DREAMS

SUNSET MAGAZINE: 100 YEARS OF IMAGINING THE WEST

VENERABLE MAGAZINE PONDERS HOW TO WIN
THE HEARTS OF A NEW GENERATION OF READERS

Published: April 19, 1998



TWICE a day, three days each week when school is in session, a timeless ritual unfolds in the most fabled suburban ranch house in the West.

Just inside the massive ponderosa pine doors of Sunset magazine's Menlo Park headquarters, a gaggle of schoolchildren sits on the polished tile floor and listens as Yvonne Damele tells the story of the magazine. It is the story of the West itself -- robber barons and railroads, adobe brick and ancient redwood groves. And while it is never explicitly stated, the central message is clear: These things are your birthright as Westerners.


After the children have toured the gardens, just before they are sent back out into the world through those big hand-carved doors, each child is handed a gift bag containing a baked treat, a magazine and a seedling. Like everything else at Sunset, the bags are perfect every time.

Steve Seabolt, Sunset's president and CEO, never gets tired of the school tours. They were his idea. From his office just off the cavernous lobby, he can gaze out the sliding glass doors on rainy days and watch the lines of children with their little red Sunset-issue umbrellas bobbing along the garden paths like bright red caterpillars. If Seabolt could make the time to personally present each student with a gift bag, he undoubtedly would do so.

He knows that if Sunset is to survive, there are seedlings that must be planted.

 

For 100 years Sunset has been a monthly ticket to a dream, a cultural mirror that has quietly shown generations of Westerners who they are -- and who they could be. At its best, the magazine has always been about celebrating the lives of its readers -- their homes, their gardens and the world that lies just down the road. Writing that was self-reverent or self-congratulatory had no place in its pages. This week, the centennial edition of Sunset is scheduled to arrive in almost 1.5 million homes throughout the West. And for the first time in many years, ''The Magazine of Western Living'' will turn its gaze inward.

As the Sunset empire commemorates its first century and charts a course for its second, the stewards of this unique institution must confront a question that has dogged Sunset for decades: Can the dream so carefully constructed in the pages of the magazine be made real for the next generation of Westerners?

EARLY YEARS
Promotional tool
and literary journal

The original Sunset never intended to speak to the West. The magazine was founded in 1898 by the Southern Pacific railroad as a promotional tool aimed at Easterners traveling on the Sunset Limited. The railroad, being the largest landowner in California, had an editorial agenda that stretched well beyond tourism. The mellifluous accounts of the good life to be found on the Pacific Coast were designed to fuel real estate sales. They also were intended to counteract accounts in Eastern publications that portrayed the Golden State as the last refuge of grifters, drifters and the morally unsound.

The first issue, just 16 pages, featured the yet-to-be-bridged Golden Gate on its cover and breathless pieces on the wonders of Yosemite and Los Angeles. (It was a Sunset headline writer, working on the August 1912 edition, who coined the term ''Valley of Heart's Delight'' for the Santa Clara Valley. The article for which the headline was written described the valley as ''a 50-mile-long garden of fruit and flowers . . . a sleeping maiden, fragrant with perfume and intoxicatingly beautiful.'')

The boosterism came to a screeching halt in 1914 when the magazine's employees bought it from the railroad and retooled it as a literary magazine. In this second era, Sunset would be a study in darkness and shadow, covering labor unrest, drug trafficking, political ineptitude and corruption. It also would be a national showcase for the best in Western letters, featuring contributions by Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Jack London, Zane Grey, Dashiell Hammett, Sinclair Lewis and a pantheon of other heavyweights.

LANE TAKES OVER
A regional look
at Western lifestyles

The Sunset that would become a fixture in millions of Western homes was truly born in 1928, when Laurence Lane, a 37-year-old former advertising executive with Better Homes and Gardens, bought the magazine for $65,000. Lane iced the literary fiction and immediately set about making Sunset into a regional lifestyle publication that would cater to the tastes of seven Western states. In 1932, Lane made a radical decision that would secure Sunset's future against any real competition from traditional home-and-garden magazines: Sunset would split content into three circulation zones dictated by climate and geography. Today, Sunset produces five separate editions each month covering 13 states.

Lane's grand experiment in regionalism, the first of its kind in American publishing, would survive the Great Depression -- barely. Although advertising cutbacks shrank the magazine to 34 pages, readers stuck with their subscriptions, which were priced at $1 per year. By 1938, the four pillars of today's Sunset -- food, travel, home and garden -- were locked in place. ''The magazine was envisioned as a family magazine. That meant both the man and the woman in the household,'' says Bill Lane, who would take over the magazine from his father in 1959 and lead Sunset through its greatest period of growth. ''Many other home-service magazines did not address the role of the man. That was a critical point, right from the beginning.''

The focus would be on all things distinctly Western. And the tone would be terse, sober and authoritative. As two top editors from that era explained it: ''Our aim is to make every item a piece of news and to say everything as compactly as possible, giving you the greatest usefulness in the least time and space.''

The attack on Pearl Harbor would signal the return of lean times at Sunset. Unlike the Depression, World War II didn't slow the placement of ads. This time, paper shortages would keep the magazine in a holding pattern. Lane was an astute economic strategist and promoter of Western development. But it's doubtful that even he could have any idea of the great golden vista that would unfold before him after V-J Day.

POST-WAR ERA
The Western ideal
for a new way of life

The West does not hold back in its affection for those blessed souls who appear with the right tool at the right time. Like Levi Strauss during the Gold Rush, Laurence Lane had what every war-weary Westerner needed in 1946: instructions for a new way of life.

Hundreds of thousands of people had come to -- or through -- the West for the war effort. The bounty of the Pacific region -- a better climate, greater opportunities, more space and a more relaxed lifestyle -- was not lost on them. And at war's end, a lot of them thought twice about returning to the East. They would use their new affluence (per capita income tripled in California from 1939 to 1946) and mobility to reinvent themselves as suburban homesteaders. Sunset would be their road map.

California State Librarian Kevin Starr, one of the West's preeminent historians, sees Sunset as a manifestation of the Progressive political movement that reshaped California, beginning in 1910. ''The Progressive tradition laid down our sense of public life,'' says Starr. ''And Sunset, implicitly and explicitly, fostered an image and reality of California as a progressive place -- a place of orderly people, good behavior and civil values. In effect, Sunset magazine represented the California ideal. And, of course, as time went on, that also became a Western ideal.''

After World War II, instruction became the heart of the magazine's mission under editor Walter Doty and his successor, Proc Mellquist. Sunset would show the newcomers a native model for gracious living -- one that didn't look to the East for style cues or approval. It would teach them how to build things, where to go and what to eat. ''By helping you instruct yourself in your taste -- whether it's furniture or food -- the magazine helped you construct an identity,'' says Starr, who recently wrote the preface to an upcoming Stanford University bibliography of the magazine.

The unifying theme -- the ''Western difference'' the editors fought to drive home in every article -- was openness. Native style meant casual entertaining in homes that opened to the environment and treated the world outside as an extended living space. (The crowning achievement in the Sunset canon is the book ''Western Ranch Houses,'' first published in 1946.)

THE FUNDAMENTALS
Accessible advice
from 'voice of God'

Mellquist, who took the editorial reins from Doty in 1954, probably did more to shape the modern Sunset than any other editor. And while he encouraged his staff to fill the magazine with new ideas and artifacts, it was on his watch that certain idiosyncrasies about the magazine itself were set in mortar like a flagstone patio. To wit:


SUNSET IS ALWAYS ACCESSIBLE

Be it a recipe, a Grand Canyon vacation or a gazebo, every project in the magazine had to be within the capabilities of most readers. Fine woodworking that would require a dozen specialized tools was out. Simple weekend projects that could be accomplished with a Skil saw, a screwdriver and $15 worth of Douglas fir were in.

Steve Lorton, the magazine's longtime Northwest bureau chief, puts it this way: ''I could not fill the garden guide with specimens that collectors had found in the Himalayas of which there were only three examples available in North America. If the reader can't put the magazine down and go find that plant to go put in their garden, we don't talk about it.''


SUNSET IS ALWAYS POSITIVE

No matter how dire the situation, the magazine would never be a vehicle for writers to criticize or complain. When prolonged drought brought water rationing to California and threatened Sunset's own gardens, the editors seized the opportunity to teach readers about drought-tolerant landscaping with native plants.

Jerry Anne Di Vecchio, Sunset's senior editor for food and entertaining (and a Western institution in her own right), says that policy has served readers well: ''It's not that we avoid the negative, it's that we provide a solution. Instead of shouting and waving our hands, we're saying, 'Here's what you should be doing to be prepared.' It's a principled kind of journalism. It serves a purpose. It doesn't leave people just wondering.''


SUNSET IS ALWAYS SMARTER THAN ANY SINGLE MORTAL

The most curious hallmark of all was Sunset's longstanding practice of speaking to readers in an anonymous editorial voice that was coolly dispassionate and utterly devoid of humor or irony. With no bylines or other individual touches, it was as if the voice of God were directing the action, from the potting shed to the pantry.

When individual bylines -- and the points of view behind them -- finally arrived in 1991, the change set off a fair wave of trepidation among the senior staff. ''The hardest word I ever had to write in a Sunset story was 'I,' when I started doing the food guide five years ago,'' says Di Vecchio, who's been with the magazine 39 years. ''I still trip over that 'I.' My original feeling was that the magazine made itself totally responsible, therefore it spoke as the magazine.''

Lorton recalls that in 1994, when he was tapped to write a first-person piece about his home, it felt ''like it was my initial experience in a nudist camp.''

Sunset travel editor Peter Fish, who studied decades of back issues before sitting down to write the main essay for the May centennial issue, maintains that Sunset was actually less constrained in the '50s and '60s than it became in the '70s. ''It was as if something had ossified,'' says Fish. ''These rules kind of grew up without anyone being particularly aware of them. What I found going back (to the '50s and '60s) was that even though there were not bylines, there were some real individual voices. It definitely became more formulaic and rigid as the years went on.''

BOOM TIMES
Rising circulation,
social responsibility

Until this decade, Sunset was not only a unique institution in the West but also a singular presence in American publishing. Laurence Lane's canny decision to break the magazine into zoned editions ensured it had a special franchise -- a regional publication with local content. And the diversified focus on home, travel, food and garden meant that no specialty magazine could ever pose a direct threat to Sunset's advertising base.

Thanks to this charmed arrangement, a robust book division and the continued growth of the West, Sunset under the Lane family's ownership was a world apart from its competitors, a family fiefdom that could defy the economic laws of publishing.

In the early '70s, when a killing tide washed over the magazine business, Sunset was just coming off the biggest expansion in its history. In 1971, the year circulation broke through the 1 million mark, the magazine was taking in $9 million in ad revenues and the book division was pulling in an additional $3 million. At that time Bill Lane boasted to the San Jose Mercury: ''The way the industry figures circulation costs, we even make a profit on that.'' (Sunset was taking in more from subscriptions than the cost of promotion and distribution combined.) Sunset was so fat (literally fat -- at 300-plus pages in some issues) that it could pick and choose which prospective advertisers fit best with the tone of the magazine. Until the 1990s, Sunset's pages were unsullied by ads for tobacco, liquor and beer. Wine, being a staple of the Western life, was the exception.

The magazine not only mirrored Western values, it also shaped them. And in no arena was the political and social clout of Sunset felt more acutely than on issues relating to the environment. More than any other single publication, Sunset brought environmental concerns into the mainstream consciousness. Although Mel and Bill Lane were captains of industry and prominent Republicans, they were first and foremost Progressives. And they believed they had a sacrosanct responsibility to be good stewards for the West.

Mel led some of the state's most important environmental organizations, including the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and California Coastal Commission. Bill served as an appointee in every presidential administration from Lyndon Johnson through Ronald Reagan. (Although Bill turned down Reagan's offer to be interior secretary, he did later accept a post as Reagan's ambassador to Australia from 1985 to 1989.)

Sunset brought the issue of environmental responsibility home to the suburbs in 1969, when it came out strongly against the use of DDT. Once editors convinced Bill Lane that the pesticide was a danger to the environment, he banned all DDT advertising, a principled stand that Lane says cost the magazine many advertisers and ad dollars, some of which eventually returned.

The magazine also lavished early and extensive coverage on legislation to protect wilderness areas, wild rivers and redwoods. ''The environment is still a big part of our lives,'' says Bill Lane. ''I think our coverage of water, the drought, earthquakes, congestion and traffic problems has been important. Those were the things that Sunset gave a tremendous amount of attention to.''

THE SUNSET IMPRIMATUR
Magazine's integrity
inspires devotion

Sunset's editors are acutely aware of just how much power the Sunset name carries. And they worry about the unintended consequences a mention in the magazine may spell for a particular event or community. ''If we write about one particular small town or natural area, we worry that for a year or two they're going to get more people than they can handle,'' says Fish. ''I've learned from experience that people trust the magazine so much that they'll faithfully follow what we say -- sometimes step by step and hour by hour. That is kind of scary.''

Lorton believes the extraordinary level of trust readers place in the magazine is well-earned. ''Honestly, the power of Sunset is its integrity. The magazine attracts people who are genuinely and truly interested in life,'' he says. ''So many magazines are put together in skyscrapers in New York. At Sunset, everybody's out in the field all the time. I have had the luxury for 26 years of publishing things I believe in. I've never had to say a negative thing in print. If I chose to put it in a story, it had to be good.''

Thanks to the obsessive level of quality control and testing that Sunset throws at every project (most recipes, for example, are tested four to six times by three sets of cooks), that trust is rarely broken. Longtime staffers can recall only two instances where serious mistakes got into the magazine: In the early '50s, Sunset told readers how to pave their own driveways with asphalt. After many cars became mired in the overly soft material, the magazine published a very detailed and somewhat sheepish correction. The other memorable debacle was a recipe for bread that was to be baked in tennis-ball cans. A reader pointed out that the cans were lined with a substance that could be dangerous when heated.

Not only do readers trust Sunset -- they also are fiercely devoted to it. (The magazine estimates 93 percent of the nearly 1.5 million people who get the magazine are subscribers, a rate that's among the highest in the magazine industry.) Although issues published after World War I rarely have value in the collectibles market, they often are accorded the status of family heirlooms. (Sunset editors say it's not unheard of for Sunset collections to be fought over in divorce proceedings.) Longtime Sunset subscribers sometimes tend to behave more like stockholders than customers. They are quick to make themselves heard when they feel the integrity of their magazine is in danger. The early '90s would sorely test that special contract. It would be the darkest chapter in Sunset history.

TIME WARNER
A staff purge and
unpopular redesign

Mel and Bill Lane had always hoped their children would extend the Lane Publishing dynasty to a third generation. By the late '80s it was clear none of the brothers' five children would step in. In 1989, the brothers looked into either selling the company to the employees or going public. They settled instead on a merger with an old friend -- Time Warner. The two companies had a long history of goodwill and collaboration. If any publishing entity could understand and protect the special franchise Sunset possessed, surely it would be Time Warner. The deal was done in 1990 for $225 million in cash and stock.

S. Christopher Meigher III, the Time Inc. executive vice president who was the first interim executive to steer the magazine, wasted no time saying what everyone wanted to hear. In April 1990, calling Sunset ''one of the truly magnificent jewels in the whole fabric of American publishing,'' he reassured employees and readers that Sunset ''ain't broke. And we don't need to go out and fix it.''

Four months after the announcement of the takeover and 40 days after it took effect, the fixing began: The new regime slashed 75 positions from the 400-person payroll, including nearly half of the headquarters' gardeners. Bill Crosby, a home improvement editor who left Sunset in 1996 to become vice president-editorial director for ImproveNet, a Palo Alto-based Web start-up, remembers: ''The first big purge was a memorable morning when everyone was called to the north patio and then told to go back to their desks. There would be an envelope there telling you if you had a job or not. There were security guards in the lobby that day. It was ugly.'' The ugliness didn't end there. Late 1991 saw a disastrous redesign that rankled many longtime subscribers.

Time and Time Warner have not healed all wounds. Today, the mere mention of some Time Warner executives from the transition can make even the sweetest Sunset editors resort to profanity. Ronald Kovas, the second CEO of the Time Warner era, resigned in July 1992. Robin Wolaner, founder and president of Parenting magazine, took the helm. Wolaner, regarded by most as a rising star in the Time Warner cosmos, was generally well-liked, but reportedly clashed with some high-level editorial staffers over the speed of changes. Finally, in late 1995, Time Warner sent in Steve Seabolt, one of the company's most trusted core players.

Seabolt, who was promoted from Sunset's publisher to president/CEO, was a loyal Time Inc. lieutenant who'd done the grand tour through Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, People and Money. Seabolt was a safe, known entity. But, not only did this Time Warner company suit seem to understand what the Lanes had done -- he also appeared to be a genuine fan.

SUNSET LITE
Projects designed
for busy people

In May 1996, Bill Marken, who started at Sunset in 1964 and took over the editorial reins from Proc Mellquist in 1982, was replaced by Rosalie Muller Wright. Wright, who came to Sunset from the San Francisco Chronicle, had some heavyweight credentials as a magazine editor: In the late '70s, she'd been executive editor of New West, a bold, edgy and often abrasive magazine that was essentially the anti-Sunset. It was under her direction that New West had published a wicked Sunset parody called ''Sunsect,'' which featured headlines such as ''The Yalta Conference -- unique theme for a barbecue,'' ''Guacamole-based miracle mulch fixes plant pH pronto,'' and ''How to tell and what to do if pets, plants are gay.'' Wright says Seabolt was kind enough not to bring up the ''Sunsect'' project until after he'd made the decision to hire her.

Wright's greatest mark on the magazine to date has been a new editorial mix that could best be characterized as Sunset Lite(TM): simpler projects, faster recipes, lower-maintenance gardens and shorter weekend trips. She's also steered the magazine toward a lighter, cleaner graphic look. ''I won't win many friends by saying this, but when Time Warner brought in art directors and consultants, they came in with a bang and did a disastrous thing. The magazine began to look very tired and dowdy,'' says Wright. ''Frankly what I'm doing is restoring some of the openness that the Lanes pioneered.'' She says that unlike the unpopular redesign of 1991, the changes she's made have not been met with any significant reader complaints.

Seabolt hopes the Lanes would approve of the direction he and Wright are heading: ''If you look at the magazine now, it almost looks like a contemporary version of what you had before. Reading Sunset should be a warm, relaxed, comfortable experience and the design has to reflect that. It shouldn't be hip. It shouldn't be with-it. It shouldn't be cutting-edge. We should be none of those things.''

So what should the Sunset for the next century be? ''If the magazine was a person,'' says Seabolt, ''it should be your very favorite neighbor, the one who doesn't even need to knock. The one that just wanders into your yard on a Saturday and says 'What are you planting? Do you want some help?' ''

If there's one change in the post-Lane era that's met with near-universal applause, it's the emergence of distinctive, individual voices in the magazine. The ''voice of God'' died an unlamented death shortly after the takeover. And although bylines have been in place since '91, writing with a strong point of view is just starting to come into full bloom under Wright.

''The world has changed to the point where the 'voice of God' is no longer (what the readers want to hear),'' she says. ''That monotone is not right for the '90s.'' So far, the most prominent and promising voice in the magazine belongs to Peter Fish, who's currently writing a series on the West's historic trails. Fish, an uncommonly erudite and elegant writer by any magazine's definition, was recently named travel editor, a move that will force him to cut down on his writing output. Besides Fish, wine writer Karen MacNeil and senior writer Lauren Bonar Swezey are coming into their own as strong writers.

Fish knows that no matter how piquant the editorial stew becomes, Sunset will never be hip. Or sassy. Or ironic. Sunset will never regard the West with a smirk. ''I don't think we are going to be a magazine that celebrates kitsch or camp,'' says Fish. ''We just are not a magazine to take a superior tone toward anything.''

Today, the legacy the Lanes signed over to Time Warner is secure -- if not entirely booming -- under Seabolt and Wright. In two years they've restored things to what Seabolt calls ''fundamentally the same magazine that would be produced if Mel and Bill Lane still ran this company.''

Among the high-ranking editors, there also is a sense that the ship has been made sound: ''Steve and Rosalie like the history of the magazine. They've saved the best,'' says Di Vecchio. ''But they've also saved us, in a manner of speaking, so we can keep on moving into the future. The Lane boys were getting older and we were in danger of not surviving if we didn't get someone with a commitment to carrying the magazine forward. We were very close to becoming a fly in amber.''

While Sunset does not disclose revenue figures, Seabolt says 1998 will be a year of record profits, with double-digit profit growth. Advertising pages for the year to date are up 21 percent. On the other hand, while newsstand sales are up, total circulation is stalled at around 1.5 million, just barely up from what it was when the Lanes decamped eight years ago.

NEXT GENERATION
Home ownership
and the 'a-ha moment'

This week, the May centennial issue (a beefier-than-usual edition that will weigh in at around 300 pages) will arrive in homes throughout the West. It will feature a veritable feast of writing and art by some of the magazine's most celebrated contributors, past and present. And on Saturday and next Sunday, the Sunset headquarters complex in Menlo Park will host a two-day centennial party for thousands of readers and friends. When the party's over, Seabolt and company will be left with many happy memories -- and the same question that Sunset has been grappling with for decades: Where is the next generation of Sunset readers?

The painful truth -- that Sunset is a middle-aged magazine devoted to comforting the affluent -- has been a concern for at least 25 years, and perhaps even longer. And the current numbers bear that out: The average age of a Sunset subscriber is 46, virtually unchanged from a decade ago. The average household income is $96,000.

There are no plans to make changes specifically aimed at pulling down that median age. ''We won't do that,'' says Seabolt. ''A magazine has a choice -- it can cling onto a readership, grow old with it and die with it. Or it can be a conduit through which generations pass. In the case of Sunset, the minute someone closes on a house, we view them as moving onto our radar screen. That's what I call the 'aha moment.' 'Aha. Now I know why Mom and Dad read this magazine.' If we have done our job well, that moment will happen naturally.''

Sunset has always been about selling a dream. And for most of the magazine's 100-year reign, every element in that dream was attainable by most readers. But for many young people making a first home in the West today, parts of that dream will probably never be made tangible. While many core elements of that life -- good food, travel and a garden -- remain within reach, other elements -- particularly the all-too-perfect houses -- are unattainable for those living in high-priced regions such as the Bay Area.

Will the next generation of Sunset readers find itself living large portions of the dream vicariously through the pages of the magazine? Until now, Sunset has told Westerners who they are. The Sunset of the next century may serve only to remind them of who they wish they were.

Rosalie Wright and her staff uniformly believe that such a view is distorted -- skewed by a Northern California real estate market that's out of control. ''They'll get to us earlier in different parts of the country,'' she says. ''If you go to the Front Range in Colorado you can buy a really fabulous, brand-new house for $140,000. Every time I fly over those places, I think they're all potential Sunset readers.''

But can young people in any major metropolitan area reasonably expect to live the dream on the scale their parents did? ''Absolutely, there are places in the West where they can,'' says Seabolt. ''The goal is you serve up a range of stories that embrace the largest number of people. Even on a dream house, maybe a reader is going to find one or two or three elements, ideas they can apply to their lives.''

A look at today's Sunset seems to tell a different story. Every aspect of the Sunset life -- with the exception of the houses -- has been carefully scaled back to reflect a world where commutes are too long and weekends too short. Seabolt sighs and gazes out at the garden. ''I wouldn't say 'scaled back.' . . . That sounds diminished. But we do want to reflect how people live today.''

Spend enough time with Steve Lorton and sooner or later he will get around to telling the story about the wooden sign that hangs on his office wall. He was visiting an Oregon garden that was well past its prime, a study in horticultural kitsch and arrested decay, when his 94-year-old hostess led him to a clearing and announced she was going to plant something in honor of the Man from Sunset.

The particular plant was, she said, a variety that would grow one inch every year. Lorton wondered to himself why a 94-year-old would plant anything that was going to grow an inch a year. Then he looked behind her and there, carved in cedar, was a mossy, weathered sign: ''Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.'' Lorton took it to be an epiphany of sorts.

''I believe,'' he says, ''if everybody does that much, you can't help but have a quality life. That's what Sunset does.''

Back in Menlo Park, Steve Seabolt plants what he can, with what he has.


SUNSET INTRODUCED READERS
TO A WEALTH OF HOMEY IDEAS

MANY of the practices and artifacts that Westerners take for granted as ingredients for the good life first made their way into the home through the pages of Sunset. The impressive list of ideas the magazine introduced to a mainstream audience ranges from drought-tolerant gardening to including nutritional information with recipes.

Each year, Sunset fills 10,000 reader requests for reprints -- from bread recipes to blueprints for a complete house. Currently, the most-requested projects are (in no particular order):

  The Sunset Chair (originally published July 1997)

  Adobe oven (August 1971)

  Tepees (July 1997)

  The Sunset Western Dream House (April 1997)

  Barbecue grills (May 1995 and June 1997)

  Fireplaces (November 1996)

  Strawberry pot fountain (June 1997)

  Hand-painted pots (June 1993)

  Potting sheds (April 1995)

  Deer-proofing (various issues)

  Lemon pie cake (various issues)

  Sourdough bread (various issues)


A SPECIAL PLACE TO WORK

MAGAZINE STAFFERS AND VISITORS FEEL AT HOME INSIDE THE MISSION-STYLE 'ADOBE WOMB' IN MENLO PARK

SUNSET does more than just tell its readers how to build a gracious life -- it shows them. The magazine's headquarters, at Willow and Middlefield roads in Menlo Park, is as much an institution as Sunset itself. About 7,000 visitors tour the buildings and grounds each year, making it one of the very few bona fide tourist attraction in the world of magazine publishing.

From the gardens and potting sheds through the kitchens and dining rooms, the compound is the ultimate expression of Sunset's values and style -- rendered on a scale just slightly larger than life. The facility, a working laboratory for the magazine, was designed by Cliff May, who popularized the ranch house, and completed in 1951. (The Sunset Books building across the road would come later.)

Today, May's classic vision of native Western elegance -- Mission-style adobe walls, exposed redwood, wrought-iron fixtures and great expanses of glass -- remains largely unchanged. While there are priceless riches here (most notably furniture, wine and Navajo rugs) everything about the temple-like compound is muted. It is an exercise in understatement taken to the verge of austerity.

When the building was dedicated, Sunset's patriarch, Laurence Lane, told the Mercury, ''We have freed ourselves of the pressures of metropolitan living and working conditions. That means we'll get along better, think straighter and be happier doing our interpretive job.''

Just as the buildings and gardens would be an extension of the magazine's vision, the work culture that would come to flourish inside those thick adobe walls would also be special. With their paternalistic management style and Falstaffian appetite for the good life, the Lanes built a working environment unlike anything else in journalism. They reinforced the idea of the magazine-as-family with parties, dinners and scores of gracious little gestures that have passed into Sunset lore.

While it's relatively common for Sunset writers and editors to enter Sunset straight out of college and stay for 20, 30 or even 40 years, Jerry Anne Di Vecchio is an extreme case: In 1952, the year after Sunset moved into its new headquarters, Di Vecchio was a 16-year-old attending high school in Half Moon Bay. On the day she toured Sunset headquarters, she asked an editor, ''What do you have to do to work here?'' Armed with that information, she went to San Jose State University and secured a dual degree in home economics and journalism. In 1959, after two years in Europe, Di Vecchio returned through the great wooden doors of Sunset headquarters. ''I walked in and said, 'Gee, I like this. I feel at home here.' And I've never stopped feeling at home,'' she says. Next year, Di Vecchio, who is now senior editor for food and entertaining, will celebrate 40 years in the Sunset empire.

Peter Fish, who was recently promoted from senior writer to travel editor, is another Sunset lifer who came to the organization straight out of college. Fish had earned his degree in Western American history. Today, the 43-year-old essayist who writes ''Western Wanderings'' each month considers himself very fortunate, indeed: He is one of the few history graduates who puts his degree to work every day. ''The impression one gets of Sunset being a very subdued environment is correct,'' Fish says. ''It has always been a polite, muffled place. The first time I came to interview, it was Christmastime, and they had a fire going in the lobby and all the decorations, and it just gave one pause. It didn't seem real at all. It didn't seem like a workplace.''

Fish knew from his scant experience at other publications during his college years that he'd entered a separate realm. ''At the paper in Southern California, some of my time was spent literally working on the press and lifting up big bundles of paper for ad inserts,'' says Fish. ''So coming to Sunset, the fact that I didn't think I was going to be killed by a bundling machine -- that was good. Also, at Mademoiselle magazine, people were always bursting into tears in the office. And no one was bursting into tears here.''

There were other benefits to life inside the ''adobe womb.'' One of the odder editorial staples that endures to this day is the practice of using staffers' families and friends as anonymous models in photo illustrations. Bill Crosby, a former home improvement editor, remembers how readers could watch entire families grow up in the pages of the magazine: ''The magazine really was a family album. I used to have competitions with Peter Whiteley to see which of us could get his kids in the magazine more in a given year. And yes -- we really lived the life.''

Although the Lanes have been gone for eight years, the culture they fostered is more or less intact. When Rosalie Muller Wright replaced longtime top editor Bill Marken, Northwest bureau chief Steve Lorton thought he saw the writing on the wall. Lorton, who considered himself one of Marken's closest friends on the staff, thought about resigning, but decided to hang on just a little while longer. That was two years ago.

''You know, we've come full circle in less than 10 years,'' says Lorton. ''When Time Warner took over, there were some real doubts whether (this unique culture) could survive under certain individuals. Now, Sunset is more like Sunset than it's been in a long time.'' Lorton recalls that on his 25th anniversary -- Valentine's Day, 1997 -- he found himself wondering again if he was old and in the way. A delivery person brought a huge bouquet with a card that read: ''We're so happy you're with us. Love, Rosalie and staff.''

''That,'' says Lorton, ''was exactly the kind of thing Bill Lane would have done.''



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