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Sunset magazine's iconic headquarters, garden are sold

Russ Parsons
The California Cook
Sunset magazine's test kitchens influenced a generation of CA home cooks

Sunset editor-in-chief Peggy Northrop vividly remembers the first time she walked into the magazine's iconic offices in Menlo Park. "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," she says.

But she's also a lifelong publishing vet who had seen the financials, so the sale of the property Wednesday came as no shock. "I knew that having this spectacular building like that was a rare privilege that was perhaps unlikely to last, let’s put it that way."

The seven-acre campus, centered on a ranch-style building designed by famed Mid-Century architect Cliff May, housed a complex including a test kitchen and gardens that helped influence several generations of California home cooking, gardening and decor.

Time Inc., which bought the magazine from longtime owners Lane Publishing in 1990, sold the  property to real estate investment firm Embarcadero Capital Partners only a month after it was first listed. Details of the sale were not disclosed, but the Silicon Valley Business Journal pegged the price as at least $77 million.

In a letter to Sunset employees announcing the sale, Time Inc. said a search was underway for a new location and that the magazine staff would remain in place through the end of 2015. The new location will be somewhere in the Bay Area, according to a Time Inc. spokesperson.

Sunset’s former home editor Dan Gregory wrote on his gorgeously illustrated blog Eye on Design that he could understand the sale, as the site is in the heart of the Silicon Valley, not far from Stanford University and only a few blocks from Facebook, and would surely sell for “surpassing Silicon sums."

“But speaking as Sunset‘s former senior home editor who wrote a book about ranch house popularizer Cliff May, the designer of the building, I very much hope that whoever purchases the property understands its significance as an early and influential example of environmental design.”

Northrop insists on looking forward. "The building and the grounds are amazing, there's no doubt about that, but they are not everything that the magazine is," she says.

"One of the disadvantages of an iconic building is that it can make you very inward-facing. It was located in Menlo Park at a time when everyone was moving to the suburbs. But right now, the story of the west is people moving back to urban areas. We need to reflect that and clinging to an iconic building could get in the way of that."

The Sunset headquarters opened in 1951, in a roughly 30,000-square-foot building designed by May and with elaborate natural gardens designed by famed San Francisco designer Thomas Church.

According to Gregory, magazine owner Larry Lane charged May with designing a building that  “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.”

What the next Sunset headquarters will consist of is very much still up in the air.

"Of course we will need a test kitchen -- that goes to the very core to what we are," Northrop says. "I would hope we would also have our own test garden or at least a relationship with a garden.

"But while it would be lovely to have our own garden, we have relationships already with gardens all over the West -- home gardens, research gardens, there's no shortage. We're constantly scouting other people's gardens and writing about them. The things Sunset has espoused over so many years, now literally taking root all over the West."

Are you a food geek? Follow me on Twitter @russ_parsons1

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