Sunset Magazine Campus, the “Laboratory of Western Living,” Threatened with Demolition


Jessica Anderson


Docomomo US Advocacy Committee


Newsletter, Threatened, Advocacy, California
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The seven-acre Modern corporate campus once home to Sunset magazine is under threat of demolition. The site captures the essence of “California Modernism” in both its physical design and cultural significance.


Founded in 1898 as a marketing tool for the Southern Pacific Railroad to lure tourists west, Sunset magazine was purchased in 1929 by Laurence and Ruth Lane. In their first issue, the Lanes shared their mission for the publication: “Advancing with modern trends, life in the West offers the utmost in living. Charming and comfortable homes are the rule. Tastefully designed and furnished, they also abound in new convenience ideas, making housekeeping less of a job and more of a joy . . . the new Sunset will be vitalized by a constant stream of new ideas in the art of living. It is keyed to the prime interests of life in the West – indoors and out.”

In 1950, after outgrowing their office in San Francisco, the Lanes purchased the Menlo Park property and enlisted May and Church to design the new Sunset headquarters. Construction was completed in 1951, and the building opened to the public in 1952.

Credited with creating the California ranch home, Clifford May practiced throughout southern California, designing more than a thousand custom homes, with an additional 18,000 tract homes based on his designs. The office building at 80 Willow Road carries the hallmarks of his California Ranch designs—particularly seen in the low-sloped roof atop low-profile exterior walls and in the floor-to-ceiling windows and central courtyard intended to blur the line between indoors and outdoors—along with details of earlier styles adapted to suit a modern palate: the exposed rafter tails of a Craftsman home and stucco- and brick-clad chimneys reminiscent of Mission style and adobe structures.

Landscape architect Thomas Church opened his San Francisco office in 1932 and remained in practice there until 1977. Known as creator of the “modern California garden,” he designed the Donnell Garden (1948) in Sonoma, CA; portions of the campuses of Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Cruz; and the General Motors Technical Center (1956) in Warren, MI, which was the first major independent project by Eero Saarinen after leaving his father Eliel’s firm. Church was part of a group of collaborators gathered by Saarinen to consult on the Warren Technical Center—a group that also included Alexander Girard, Harry Bertoia, and Florence Knoll.


At 80 Willow Road, the Church-designed landscape included 3,000 square feet of test gardens for the magazine, while May’s design for a house-like office building held “sleek test kitchens that cooked up thousands of recipes per year,” lending the campus the moniker the “laboratory of Western living.” A 2019 profile of the publisher noted that editors weren’t interested only in modern living: “Those pages also covered threats to the West’s natural resources and sounded the alarm on the dangers of pesticides, drought and wildfires.” Sunset editors working at 80 Willow Road were responsible not only for the eponymous magazine, but also for publishing more than 800 books.

Current Threat

In late 2023, the current owner, N17 Development, proposed construction of three towers at 80 Willow Road in Menlo Park, CA, which would require demolition of the existing structure and landscape features, designed by Clifford May and Thomas Church, respectively. In its brief about the proposed development, The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) describes the acreage as a Modernist corporate campus “unlike any other, serving as an incubator and laboratory on the art of living in the West.” The Docomomo US national advocacy committee is working with Docomomo US/Northern California and TCLF to advocate for this important work of Modern architecture and landscape design.

Sunset occupied 80 Willow Road until 2015, when its parent company Time Inc. moved the publication’s office to Oakland. The property was sold the same year.

The site currently retains a high degree of integrity. May’s main headquarters structure, original trees and shrubs as well as heritage oaks, are still intact. TCLF shared that “numerous landscape features, including the generous lawn edged by paths and the patio gardens, survive.”

In the days and weeks since the threat of demolition was made known to Docomomo US, many of our California members have conveyed to us that Sunset magazine’s influence on lifestyle knows no limits. One member elaborated, “it showed us what it meant to be a Californian.” The significance of Sunset magazine and its headquarters goes well beyond the built fabric. Docomomo US and our colleagues in Northern California will continue our efforts to advocate for a positive preservation-focused solution.

How You Can Help

Per TCLF, those concerned about the threat should contact the mayors of Menlo Park and Palo Alto and “express their concern and support for maximum preservation of the Sunset Headquarters building and landscape.”

Cecilia Taylor – Mayor of Menlo Park

Greer Stone – Mayor of Palo Alto



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