The Sunset Headquarters Landscape

image: Gordon Osmundson
image: Gordon Osmundson

The Sunset Headquarters landscape, in Menlo Park, California, was originally designed by Thomas Church, with a building by designer and developer Cliff May. The property is historically significant for its building and landscape; however, it is just as important for its association with the magazine and publishing company. Still popular as a publisher today, its place as a tastemaker in post-WWII California and the Western United States cannot be disputed. I regret to say that the property has been sold and Sunset has moved out. Some sources assure us the property won’t be changed very much, but I am skeptical of this claim, given property values in the South Bay. At least there is documentation of the property, which will reside in the Library of Congress as a result of documentation produced for the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) for the 2015 HALS Challenge competition.

I’ve looked forward to each year’s HALS Challenge. I find it’s a timely spur to pursue the very satisfying and in-depth exploration of a significant landscape. Digging in to a landscape design, so to speak, gives me an excuse to spend time understanding a place—how it was designed, where it fits in our history of landscape architecture, what it meant to people at its creation, and what it means to us now. What I learn each year continues to resonate long after I am finished with the project.

In researching Sunset Headquarters in Menlo Park, I learned about some of the earliest office park designs. This particular combination of a Ranch-style office building set in a gardenesque landscape, complete with outdoor play and rest areas for employee use, set an influential standard for office campuses. These office parks are now ubiquitous in suburban settings, and I look at them now through the scrim of those designers and clients who were experimenting with exciting new design ideas. It is not a stretch to think of the Google campus, in nearby Mountain View, as an extension of these early efforts. For historic photographs of the building and landscape, see the Eichler Network website.

I also had an excuse to look through Sunset’s library of magazines, where I found articles by and about significant landscape architects and architects, particularly in the post-WWII era. It was interesting to trace the developing popular ideas about uses and designs for houses and their outdoor spaces, including the first so-called “modern” deck (a Tommy Church design, first published in Sunset magazine), outdoor kitchens, and patios.

The magazine’s tagline was “The Magazine of Western Living,” and it was a rare publication in its emphasis on the west, as well as on its intent to appeal to men and women equally (considered ground-breaking for a magazine at that time). All manner of topics were covered in those important years, including historic preservation, the care of parks, solar energy, home cooking for busy families where both parents now might be employed, and the explosion of home-improvement projects, a newly-popular activity.

Plant experimentation area image: Chris Pattillo
Plant experimentation area
image: Chris Pattillo

Each year plants were tested in the garden and many of the gardening articles in the magazine featured photographs taken on the property. More recently, sustainable gardening was a source of experimentation at Sunset and took readers on a journey of discovery and acceptance. Information about managing landscapes in the dry west has been an on-going topic in the magazine, as well as in Sunset books and pamphlets. The magazine has partnered with local water agencies to pioneer and publicize water-saving techniques.

Those of us who live and work in the Western United States are accustomed to using the Sunset Western Garden Guide “Climate Zone” maps. These zones are more fine-grained than the USDA maps, and take into account soil conditions, microclimates, snow cover, and proximity to the ocean, among other factors. Knowing how useful these zones are, I was interested to learn that they came about in 1954 when the Sunset staff, working with knowledgeable advisors, first developed 13 zones; these zones were soon expanded and now stand at 31 distinctions. The term “plant climate” was also coined by Sunset’s staff around the same time. (This information was provided by Sunset’s garden editor, Kathleen Norris Brenzel, whom I enjoyed interviewing on three occasions.) Sunset also experimented with new plant introductions and worked closely with Western nurseries to expand appropriate offerings for the landscapes west of the Rocky Mountains.

My main task on our shared documentation project was the research and writing for the history and significance of the property. The story of Sunset is a rich vein to mine, and it quickly captured my imagination. Every mid-century landscape and building I see leads me to think of the many ways Sunset reflected the hopes of the West’s burgeoning population and I think of the results of the research often. As with any HALS documentation project I’ve done, I’ve learned about aspects of the profession of landscape architecture and my California home that have enriched my view of the landscapes around me.

image: Gordon Osmundson
image: Gordon Osmundson

This shared project was undertaken by members of the Northern California Chapter of HALS, HALSncc. Chris Pattillo, FASLA, Jill Johnson, an architectural historian, and I shared the research and writing portion. Landscape architect Sarah Raube did most of the measured drawings, with assistance from Lorena Garcia, landscape designer, Genny Bantle, landscape architect, and myself. Gordon Osmundson, landscape architect and photographer, provided the lovely large-format, black and white photographs.

To enter the HALS competition, one need not produce documentation as extensive as that done by our group. A simple short format history is sufficient to generate a permanent record of a significant landscape, and the record you create will become available to the public through the Library of Congress website. The forms and instructions are available at the National Park Service website. This year’s competition theme is documentation of a landscape for a property that is on the National Register. A flyer for the 2016 competition can be found here.

Dig in to a significant landscape and join the challenge!

by Janet Gracyk, ASLA, RLA 5491

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