Sunset Magazine: A Century of Traveling and Gardening in Los Angeles


This is the second of a 3-part series in which @LAHistory explores the history and influence of Sunset Magazine. Read Part 1 here.

Sunset Magazine writers wrote "how to" articles for the curious readers interested in Western food, gardens, home improvement and travel. Sunset "travel" as applied to Los Angeles meant things to do in and around Southern California, i.e. hiking the nearby mountains, walking the streets of downtown, sailing to the Channel Islands, exploring the little known wetlands, discovering ethnic enclaves, searching out unusual food adventures.

At the turn of the century, Angelenos subscribed to Charles Lummis' "Out West" (later "Land of Sunshine") and the Auto Club's "Touring Topics" (later "Westways"). In these publications, as well as Sunset, the beaches were a recurring theme.

Travel in and Around Los Angeles

The Girl in the Surf, cover design by J.A. Cahill, July 1911
The Girl in the Surf, cover design by J.A. Cahill, July 1911

Repeated look at Sunset's coverage of Southern California's beaches tells of the tastes and interests of the times, providing a vivid snapshot of each period. In 1909, readers were told how to visit the beaches by interurban, and how they could stay in a hotel in a beach city and "live like a vested plutocrat; or engage apartments ranging in price from $25 to $500 a month and live like a retired plumber...or rent a canvas house in the tent city and live close to nature." In 1950, readers learned about the "fast growing sports" of skin diving and goggle fishing and that the best surf boarding was probably at San Onofre. In 1968, the editors gave readers a beach-by-beach description of what to do, where to park and picnic, the best tidepools, among a myriad other details, along the 105-miles of Los Angeles beach. The first beach listed is Point Mugu, "newly opened this spring; about 3 miles of ocean frontage."

The articles on the San Gabriel Mountains, by Southwest Editor Walter Houk, were a notable achievement as they provided a detailed look at the local mountain range. "The San Gabriels are unusual among North American mountain ranges in that their axis runs east and west. This gives them a sunny south slope where spring stirs long before the calendar announces it." (February 1968). When asked about the impetus for the article, Houk explained it was partly memories from his early days in Los Angeles, partly from a sense of discovery when returning to Los Angeles, and "partly out of a sense that not many people in L.A. (outside of a few Sierra Club members) and even fewer northern California folks knew much about them." Houk commented on reaching the low-elevation summit of Vetter Mountain, where he met the "long experienced observer, named Ramona Merwin, later colloquially known as the grandmother of lookouts.' (A 1985 Los Angeles Times article shared Merwin's memories from Vetter Lookout as she retired in 1980.)

Profile of western half of San Gabriel Mountains, Sunset, February 1968
Profile of western half of San Gabriel Mountains, Sunset, February 1968

In 1968, Sunset's Los Angeles staff produced an ambitious 8-page insert suggesting "250 Things to See and Do In and Around Los Angeles." A year before publication, writers brainstormed new ideas for exploring the city in the summer months. One could take canoe lessons on Echo Park Lake, catch a boat at Marineland for a short ocean cruise, and see the last remaining houses on Bunker Hill. Other Los Angeles landmarks listed in 1968 that are now gone include the Piano Museum on Beverly Boulevard, and the Beulah Hawkins Doll Museum. As Sunset pointed out in the article, the Los Angeles metropolis hides many recreational opportunities from visitors and residents alike. More than forty years later, this still rings true as evidenced by many references to a "hidden" Los Angeles.

There were also articles on more lighthearted topics like a guide to merry-go-rounds in Southern California (June 1968), and a round-up of puppetry that began "Puppets are serious business in Los Angeles." (August 1977). The article featured several of Los Angeles' well known puppeteers, including Bob Baker (of the now-historic Bob Baker Marionettes) and Harry Burnett. Burnett was one of the Yale Puppeteers who performed on Olvera Street in the 1930s, and later entertained audiences in the beloved Turnabout Theater. (The Los Angeles Public Library has the Turnabout Theater archive online).

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As older reporters remember, research before the Internet was labor intensive. Numerous phone calls and in-person interviews with experts were the norm. One important expert was Tom Owen in the history department of the Los Angeles Public Library, who solved many Los Angeles history puzzles for Sunset writers. Owen died in 2000, and in his Los Angeles Times obituary, librarian Glen Creason described him as "the indispensable man, the un-supervisable wonder, the self-deprecating walking encyclopedia of Los Angeles history." Experts for some stories were more difficult to find than others. Finding the charro (Mexican cowboys) arenas in Southern California was particularly challenging, as this was before the Charros Federation had a website, let alone a YouTube channel.

An unpublished photo of Bob Baker in his marionette studio in 1977, photographed by Gerald R. Fredrick. © Gerald R. Fredrick
An unpublished photo of Bob Baker in his marionette studio in 1977, photographed by Gerald R. Fredrick. © Gerald R. Fredrick

Gardens and Conservation

The public gardens and parks in Los Angeles were a favorite topic of Sunset writers. Beginning in the 1920s Sunset readers came to expect every issue to include how-to garden articles ranging in length from one-column to many pages. In most cases, these articles were written by garden experts living in Southern California, though exceptions were made for celebrity gardeners.

Lawrence Clark Powell, better known for writing about books than gardens, submitted a piece called "Robinson Jeffers and His Garden." Both Powell and Jeffers are best remembered for use of a pen rather than their use of a green thumb. But as Powell pointed out, Jeffers had attended the School of Forestry at the University of Washington, so his garden in Carmel did reflect a knowledge of plants and trees--as did his poetry.

The magazine regularly showcased Los Angeles gardens, which contained ideas readers could adapt in their own landscapes. One early example was "When Stars Come Down to Earth, They Find Real Joy in Gardening and Dig Up Many New and Interesting Ideas" (August 1934). The article began by wondering whether movie stars really did like to garden or was it just a publicity stunt. It turns out that indeed actors like Victor McLaughlin had a passion for growing roses and he liked something blooming in his garden all year around. Other actor/gardeners (with their favorite plant listed) included Lilian Harvey (straw flowers), Mona Barrie (pond lilies), Louise Dresser (her flowers won prizes at the Los Angeles Flower Show), Charles Farrell (landscaped his own garden), Edmund Lowe (rare cacti), Lew Ayres (cacti), Janet Gaynor (4-acre garden), and Warner Baxter (formal garden).

As time went on, the magazine featured gardens designed or owned by plant experts, rather than movie stars. Writers were horticulturists, botanists, landscape designers, and experienced nursery men and women. Over the years, Los Angeles readers learned what was wrong with their begonias and how to grow happy ones, how to grow iris year-round in Sunset Land, what pests and diseases were attacking their camellias. Other articles sent readers to Disneyland for its garden secrets, and to the Los Angeles Arboretum where Sunset installed demonstration gardens in 1958. The magazine also published a monthly checklist of garden chores and a flower and garden events in Southern California.

In the early 1960s the magazine formed a panel of Southern California garden experts. This included landscape designers, nursery owners, garden writers, and botanical garden representatives, who met once a month in the Los Angeles office to discuss in detail the garden articles planned for forthcoming issues.

In one article, rosarians from Rose Hills, the Huntington Botanical Gardens, Exposition Park and Descanso Gardens explained how they watered, controlled weeds, pruned and groomed the roses in winter and summer. As of May 1982, these were Southern California's four biggest rose gardens growing 25,596 rose plants. The article's chart revealed differences on mulching and controlling pests, but agreement on applying lots of fertilizer each year.

How Los Angeles rosarians care for their roses, chart published in 'Lessons from the Rose Masters,' Sunset, May 1982
How Los Angeles rosarians care for their roses, chart published in 'Lessons from the Rose Masters,' Sunset, May 1982

In 1963 steer manure began to be sold at a bargain everywhere, including service stations, supermarkets, drug chains, and department stores as well as the ususal nurseries and garden stores. Sunset editors asked "did it do any good in your garden as a fertilizer or just smell as though it did?" Researchers along California's coast collected bags of steer manure and other soil conditioners for analysis. In Southern California, writers bought bags of manure from Santa Ana and Glendale nurseries and drove them to a Fullerton soil lab. It's a long but interesting story about why there was so much steer manure in CA. In 1957, 300 dairymen in Los Angeles and Orange Counties banded together to form the Dairymen's Fertilizer Cooperative Inc. to manage the manure of the 60,000 cows accumulating in corrals. It was in Dairy Valley (now Cerritos) and it covered about 5 acres, was nearly 50 feet high and contained 11.5 million cubic feet of manure.

The photographers were equally important to a Sunset garden story. Don Normark, known for his photos of Chavez Ravine in the 1940s, remembered that distance was one constant challenge for photographing gardens in Los Angeles. Another Sunset photographer, Bill Aplin specialized in gardens and probably had the best collection of garden and landscape photography in Southern California from WWII up until his passing. Former garden editor for the Los Angeles Times & Sunset Magazine, Bob Smaus remembered, "He was one of Sunset Magazine's main photographers so had access to private gardens and landscapes seldom, if ever, seen. In Southern California he was their principal photographer. He photographed gardens of passionate and inspired amateurs as well as the best designers of their day. He also photographed for Ortho's books series. He knew plants probably as well as Sunset's garden editors and recognized a garden story when he saw one."

Sunset supported ideas of conservation before and after the Lane ownership. In covering L.A.'s public parks, writers subtly highlighted issues of conservation in Los Angeles. As Kevin Starr notes in his history of Sunset Magazine, "Sunset rarely preaches overtly (except in matters of conservation), preferring, rather, in the Lane-era to allow ideas and values to emerge ever so subtly by implication from staff-written articles tightly controlled by the editorial process."

Sunset's story on Elysian Park came just as the city had threatened to level hundreds of acres of the park for a convention center. Sunset wrote, "As you look at the urban scene below, you can appreciate why this park is the center of controversy. In an already park-poor city, Elysian Park's unbuilt acres are a continual temptation to those who consider lands to be little more than free building sites..." (Sunset 1965).

An unpublished photo of Tree People and its founder Andy Lipkis, by Gerald R. Fredrick for 'Where New Forest Get Started....on Mulholland,' Sunset, September 1978. © Gerald R. Fredrick
An unpublished photo of Tree People and its founder Andy Lipkis, by Gerald R. Fredrick for 'Where New Forest Get Started....on Mulholland,' Sunset, September 1978. © Gerald R. Fredrick

In 1978, a young Andy Lipkis was photographed in Sunset's article that featured his fledgling organization, Tree People. At the time they were in the process of "turning a 10-acre site into an environmental park for nature trails, forestry nursery, display area for organic gardening..." Over 30 years later, Tree People has transformed that community site into their Center of Community Forestry. Years later, Lipkis told that writer that Sunset was one of the first magazines to write about Tree People.

Sunset's reporting on gardens and the environment in Los Angeles was recognized by Los Angeles Beautiful, which began in 1949 to honor those improving the quality of life in Los Angeles and Southern California. On September 22, 1981, Sunset Magazine received their award, in honor of the city's 200th birthday. From STET, Sunset's employee newsletter: "Our relationship with Los Angeles and Southern California goes back to Sunset's origins when the magazine was named after the crack S.P. 'Sunset Limited' train that ran between Los Angeles and New Orleans. "

Top: El Pueblo de Los Angeles, cover of Sunset Magazine, August 1974.

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