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
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?
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.''
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
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
THE SUNSET IMPRIMATUR
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
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.
A staff purge and
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
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.
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.
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
''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
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
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