Cover Story - October 22, 2008

'Sunset Unlimited': Lane family honored as history makers

by Marion Softky

When Laurence W. "Larry" Lane bought floundering Sunset magazine in 1928 for $60,000, he planted the seeds of more than pretty Western flowers.

Under the leadership of Mr. Lane, and then his sons, Bill and Mel, Sunset Magazine & Books grew the dream and how-to's of "Western Living" throughout the West for generations.

And beyond Sunset, the Lane brothers have individually made huge contributions to the environment of California and the country. Through philanthropy and personal leadership, they have advanced national parks, protection of San Francisco Bay and the California Coast, preservation of open space on the Peninsula, creation of Portola Valley, and numerous projects supporting Stanford.

These accomplishments were recognized Sept. 25 when the Lanes received the History Makers Award from the San Mateo County Historical Association. Close to 100 people partied at the domed courthouse in Redwood City, now the county's history museum, and attended a program and film screening across the street at the Fox Theater.

The program highlighted how Sunset Magazine and Books, and the Lane family, have helped make San Mateo County a remarkable place to live.

The Sunset story

"The Lane Family: Sunset Unlimited" was the title of the film honoring the Lanes and their accomplishments; it was produced by Jon Rubin of KM2 Communications of South San Francisco. The title refers to the original magazine, which was founded in 1898 by Southern Pacific Railroad and named for its special train, the "Sunset Limited."

Larry and Ruth Lane and their two small boys left Iowa and Larry's job building Better Homes and Gardens magazine in 1928 to take on a struggling magazine in San Francisco. Their first edition, in February 1929, cost 10 cents.

The senior Lanes set about building a magazine that would be not about the West, but for the West. They began blending lifestyle subjects about homes, gardens, cooking, and travel, combined with practical do-it-yourself help. They wrote the magazine to appeal to men as well as women.

Sunset also developed its social conscience early. In 1938, after it finally got into the black, Sunset stopped taking advertising for tobacco and beer, according to Bill Lane.

Mel, who died in 2007, and Bill were involved in the magazine from the beginning. They sold Sunset door-to-door in San Francisco during the Depression, and tasted their mother's new recipes, which were published in the magazine.

They also learned to love nature and parks, particularly in Yosemite, where they both worked summers as packers when they were teenagers. Bill used to make the famous call for the fire fall from Glacier Point.

After graduating from Stanford and serving in the Navy, Bill and Mel Lane returned to Sunset, and helped grow it into the bible of "Western Living." Bill married Jean, and Mel married Joan; both women were community leaders. And they made sure their children put in time at Sunset.

Through articles and books, Sunset helped guide new lifestyles that blossomed across the West after World War II. People could learn new ways for gardening, modern cooking, home improvements, and travel in the magazine and in books that appeared in nurseries and hardware stores across the West. "We put cilantro on the map," a Sunset staffer was quoted in "The Lane Family: Sunset Unlimited."

In 1951, Sunset moved to Menlo Park. Its California-style building, designed by Cliff May and surrounded by gardens designed by Thomas Church, have helped to define Menlo Park and the Peninsula ever since.

In 1961, the Lane sons took over Sunset; Bill was editor of the magazine, and Mel took on the books, producing some 20 a year — books that helped steer readers through the intricacies of indoor/outdoor living. Over the years the magazine has grown to produce five regional issues responding to the very different climates and environments in the American West.

Under the Lanes, Sunset was a leader in the environmental movement that started sweeping the country in the 1960s. In 1969, the magazine blew the whistle on using DDT in an article — and stopped accepting advertising for DDT and other garden pesticides.

The Lanes sold Sunset to Time-Warner in 1990, but have stayed close ever since.

Beyond Sunset

The Lane brothers have also made a huge imprint on the environment in San Mateo County, California, and beyond, through their individual efforts and generosity.

Bill Lane's environmental credits extend from helping found Portola Valley in 1964 as a bulwark against development into the hills, to being a key supporter of national parks. He was also ambassador to Australia under President Reagan, and a stalwart supporter of Stanford, where he rebuilt the History Corner after the Loma Prieta Earthquake in honor of his parents, and led the restoration of the Red Barn.

"Bill personifies the best qualities of Portola Valley," said Councilman Steve Toben, citing Mr. Lane's commitment to civic well-being, steadfast environmental ethic, and personal generosity. Among other gifts, he helped make the new Town Center — off the San Andreas Fault — possible with a lead gift of $1 million.

In 1995, Mr. Lane received the Conservationist of the Year Award from the National Parks and Conservation Association. He was credited for his work with parks from Colonial Williamsburg to Alaska. He helped establish Redwood National Park in Northern California, and — more recently — the addition of the Presidio in San Francisco to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

"Everywhere you turn — Jasper Ridge, the Folger Stables, the Stanford Red Barn — Bill's philanthropy is off the charts," said Mr. Toben.

Mel Lane's signature achievements were preserving California coastlines as world-class treasures. As chairman of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and later the California Coastal Commission, Mr. Lane pioneered a successful model for preventing what the film called "wall-to-wall condos."

Mel Lane was also a staunch Stanford supporter who persevered in rebuilding Memorial Church after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. He was one of the founders of the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), which has preserved some 60,000 acres of open land on the Peninsula.

Now, anyone can walk "Mel's Lane" just south of Pigeon Point Lighthouse, which POST saved from becoming a motel.


Posted by Sue Purdy Pelosi, a resident of another community
on Oct 23, 2008 at 4:23 pm

Love the story about the Lane family. They are very special people and have had a profoundly positive impact on our area.

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