From the early work of green prefab progenitor Michelle Kaufmann to freight container abodes to habitable capsules that can be shipped in a single box, Celebration Weekend, the annual Western living hoedown hosted by venerable shelter magazine Sunset, has long served as a showcase for innovative and sometimes envelope-pushing housing. And for the past several years, sustainability has played a major role in the model homes that wind up on display at Sunset’s longtime campus — a “laboratory for Western living” as the leafy, patio-heavy 7-acre spread has been described — in Menlo Park, California, for Celebration Weekend.

Topicality and a tiny environmental impact are once again presented front and center at Celebration Weekend 2015’s featured home. 

Presented by home remodeling/building resource New Avenue, the New Backyard Cottage is both a nod to the tiny house movement and the mother-in-law-friendly ADU (accessory dwelling unit) craze. Measuring 400 square feet (perhaps a wee bit more spacious than most tiny houses which typically top out at 300 square feet), the New Backyard Cottage, in a previous life, was known as Eco Home, a green (and apparently super-valuable) demonstration home located in Palo Alto’s Rinconada Park.

Sunset Celebration Weekend's New Backyard Cottage

While Celebration Weekend attendees may recognize the exterior of the New Backyard Cottage from its previous stint in Palo Alto, the inside of the boxy abode has been treated to a full makeover by Orlando Soria of Homepolish, who describes the interior as “a warm space invoking the sunshine that makes our region such a lovely place to live.” In addition to a range of curated vintage and modern furnishings, the New Backyard Cottage is packed with ideas and inspiration that demonstrate how visitors can maximize space in their own, potentially also compact, homes.

Outside, Sunset garden editors Johanna Silver and Lauren Dunec Hoang have created a “low water, high style” landscape that shows that attractive garden design doesn’t necessarily require massive amounts of irrigation.

While thoughtful and stylish, the New Backyard Cottage is decidedly more restrained than past show homes featured at Celebration Weekend. In this regard, it embraces the McMansion-bucking trend of making do with less — domesticity that’s less complicated, less clutter-filled, less big. It's simple, efficient, good-looking.

Sunset Celebration Weekend's New Backyard Cottage

The New Backyard Cottage is also symbolic of what’s going on at Sunset as a whole.

Late last year, parent company Time Inc. sold Sunset’s famed Menlo Park campus, the publication’s home for more than half a century, to a property investment firm that plans to redevelop the site into an office park (most likely a tech-centric office park considering the campus’ primo Silicon Valley location). It’s a bittersweet end of an era, particularly when you consider how long Sunset and its campus, complete with expansive, open-to-the-public gardens designed by pioneering California landscape architect Thomas Church, have been inextricably linked. 

However, Sunset — a magazine that has for decades shaped how residents of California, the Pacific Northwest, the Rockies and the Southwest live at home — has not been left homeless.

At the beginning of next year, the magazine’s editorial headquarters, much like many of its younger readers, will be downsizing and leaving the ‘burbs for a new city home. For Sunset, that new city home will be Jack London Square, a mixed-use mega-development located within the Port of Oakland.

Sunset’s editorial operations along with its test kitchen and wine cellar will relocate to a 200,000-square-foot space in a building that’s also home to, go figure, an artisanal market. The magazine’s test gardens and outdoor kitchens will reemerge at Cornerstone, a garden and event space in Sonoma.

Sunset Park's Menlo Park headquarters

To be clear, this isn’t the first time that Sunset has taken up residence in the city. Prior to moving to once-sleepy Menlo Park, back before the largely agricultural Santa Clara Valley became Silicon Valley and Mark Zuckerberg set up shop, the magazine — founded in 1898, by the way, as means of shedding California's rough 'n' tumble reputation — was located in numerous San Francisco locations. In 1906, the magazine’s offices were destroyed in the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake. In the months following the disaster, Sunset played a key role in promoting the city’s revitalization and rebirth.

It wasn’t until the postwar era that Sunset began to truly resemble the publication that it is today, a monthly lifestyle magazine mainly concerned with cooking, gardening, housekeeping and interior design. And considering its new emphasis on domestic life in the West, it was only appropriate that, in 1951, the magazine moved from the city to the suburbs. As for Sunset's new Menlo Park headquarters at 80 Willow Road, they were designed by none other than Cliff May, the architect credited with popularizing the California ranch house.

Seriously, Sunset couldn’t get more suburban if it tried.

A vintage 1950s postcard from Sunset's Menlo Park HQ

A vintage 1950s postcard depicting a typical day at Sunset's Menlo Park HQ.

Sunset Editor-in-Chief Peggy Northrop waxes on the magazine’s big-deal move away from the ‘burbs and back to the city:

In 1951 when Sunset moved from San Francisco to the south Bay, people all over the United States were leaving cities for the wide-open suburbs. Now the trend has reversed and Westerners — young people starting careers and empty-nesters alike — are opting to live where we can walk, bike or take public transit to work and experience new restaurants, shopping and culture out our front doors. We’ve documented this migration all over the West, from Denver to Portland, Seattle to San Francisco, Phoenix to LA. And now we’re part of it.
Noting that the magazine is “thrilled to be where the action is,” Northrop addresses the fate of Celebration Weekend to the San Jose Mercury: “We previously focused on large celebration weekends, but now we are taking our show on the road. We think Oakland is a perfect opportunity for multiple events during the year tied to the market in the same building and the food destinations in Oakland. We can get different outreach at Cornerstone Sonoma. We can collaborate with all kinds of new people at both sites for events."

The test gardens at Sunset's Menlo Park headquarters

I’d be curious to know if Sunset would have stayed put in Menlo Park if it had the chance. It's doubtful, but perhaps a move back to the city was already in the cards, regardless of Time Inc.'s decision to sell the magazine's longtime home. Whatever the case, fleeing the suburbs for denser, more vibrant ground in Oakland seems to make sense — it's just a shame to think that May's much-loved mid-century modern campus will likely be razed to make way for office blocks and parking structures.

As for Sunset’s final Celebration Weekend in Menlo Park, the festivities will kick off Saturday (June 6) with an action-packed roster of events including wine seminars, garden tours, cooking demos, live music and much more. Advance tickets are $25 in advance, well worth it, if only to say goodbye to a California institution.

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.