Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Sunset magazine parting ways with longtime home and garden

Sunset Magazine is leaving its Menlo Park headquarters for split new homes in Oakland and Sonoma.
Sunset Magazine is leaving its Menlo Park headquarters for split new homes in Oakland and Sonoma. Sacramento Bee file

Moving is never easy, but consider the task facing the staff of Sunset. After nearly 65 years in the same sprawling suburban home in Menlo Park, they’re relocating – to a much smaller space in a city.

Most of the magazine and publishing staff will be headquartered in Oakland’s Jack London Square. Sunset leased 20,000 square feet in the same new office building that will house the Water Street Market, a planned marketplace for artisan food.

Sunset’s garden writers and editors will move even farther north to Sonoma, where they will have a test garden and outdoor kitchen at Cornerstone, a 9-acre complex of art-filled, gallery-style gardens just north of the Sonoma Valley Airport on Arnold Drive. The moves are expected to be complete by December.

Time Inc., Sunset’s owner since 1990, sold the century-old magazine’s famous campus to Embarcadero Capital Partners, a realty investment firm known for developing Bay Area office space. Although no specifics were released, Silicon Valley Business Journal pegged the sale price at more than $77 million.

Expected to be turned into high-rent high-rise office space, the bucolic site is literally down the block from Facebook’s headquarters.

Located in a prime part of Silicon Valley, the oak-studded site straddles Menlo Park’s Willow Road with 6.6 acres around Sunset’s original midcentury modern adobe building and 3 more acres across the street. The headquarters represents architectural as well as publishing history. Cliff May, father of the California ranch house, designed the 30,000-square-foot main building, which opened in 1951. Thomas Church, considered the dean of western landscape architects, created the original 3-acre garden.

“The (garden) border reflects the climates of the West,” noted Kathleen Brenzel, Sunset’s longtime garden editor. “It runs the gamut of the Pacific Coast. You can walk from the Northwest to the Southern California coast. Many of the trees and shrubs are original. They’ve been happy here a long time.”

Held days after the announcement of the publication’s move to Oakland, Sunset’s recent Celebration Weekend became a farewell party to a beloved home and garden that had become a symbol of western living. More than 20,000 readers and fans turned out for one last look. Because of its prominence in the popular magazine and Sunset’s many books, this particular garden may rank as the most photographed private property in the West.

“We’re trying to figure out now what we can take with us,” said Brenzel as she surveyed the vast plant collection. “Many of these plants are so unusual, but we can’t transplant them all.

“It’s bittersweet,” she said of the move, “but change is good.”

Walking through the garden, she pointed to several current favorites such as “Little Miss Sunshine” variegated rockrose, Obsession nandina with brilliant red foliage and Purple Pixie weeping loropetalum.

“Oooh, my cocktail tree,” she said with delight before a 4-foot-tall dwarf fruit tree. “It’s lots of fun. It has Santa Rosa plum, Blenheim apricot, Independence nectarine and Gold Dust peach, all grafted onto the same tree. It’s still small. We’ll take it when we go.”

For almost 65 years, this site has been Sunset’s idea incubator. Gardens are planted with an eye for photography, not to be photographed right away but for future magazine stories or how-to books.

“Each space is designed with photography in mind,” said Lauren Dunec Hoang, who oversees Sunset’s test gardens. “We plant, then wait for them to grow in. I’m always working six months, a year, two years in advance. This isn’t just a garden; we’re creating content (for publications). We want to see how things really grow and try new things. If we can do it, we hope readers are inspired, too.”

This summer, Hoang is testing ollas, large terracotta pots that are buried in the ground as a slow-release water source for plants.

“I fill the pot once a week, and it’s enough water for a 36-inch circular herb garden,” she said. “The plants actually pull water from the pot (through the terracotta). It’s pretty cool.”

Nearby, Hoang’s feathered assistants cluck for attention. “Meet Honey and Charlotte, our test garden girls,” she said as the hens checked out their visitors. “Everybody who visits the test garden has to see our chickens.”

The buff-colored Orpington chickens are expected to make the move with their custom redwood coop to Cornerstone.

Sara Schneider, Sunset’s wine editor, is encouraging her staff to drink fast. She doesn’t want to move so many bottles. Decorated with antique iron racks to go with its vintage collection, Sunset’s underground wine cellar holds 5,000 bottles.

“This is probably the only workplace in the world where no one blinks an eye if you’re drinking at your desk,” she said with a smile. “It’s part of the job.”

Wine will be at the forefront of the new offices, Schneider said. A new see-through wine cellar and tasting area will greet visitors soon after they walk into the Oakland headquarters.

“The plan is for 3,000 bottles (capacity), but we’ll have some additional storage,” she said. “The architect has been really listening to our needs. The new cellar is beautifully designed and really usable.”

Like many a major move, this one involves some downsizing.

“We’re all trying to figure out it out,” Schneider said. “This is an iconic brand, and I think the company understands it. We looked for a space that fit that iconic level, and we’ll have that at Jack London Square.

“As good as I know this (move) will be for the brand, personally it will be challenging,” she added. “I just hope for a good cheese shop and bakery (in the new marketplace); then we’re good to go.”