Hef and the Mansion
In 1899, Doctor George Swift Isham built a 70-room French brick and limestone mansion at what is now 1340 North State Parkway in Chicago's Gold Coast. The mansion was designed by James Gamble Rogers, whose other projects include buildings on the campuses of Yale and Columbia universities. While school boys have always looked to those institutions for their formal educations, in 1959, they began looking to Isham's former mansion for their fantasies. In that year, Playboy Magazine founder, Hugh Hefner, purchased the mansion for $400,000, using it both as a his home and office.
During the swinging Sixties, the mansion embodied the Sexual Revolution as seen through male eyes. Hef's bedroom housed a bed that turned 360-degrees, turning one room into four separate ones. It was here that he did much of his editing work, although from 1965 to 1988, the magazine's headquarters were located a short walk away in the Palmolive Building, an art deco masterpiece on Michigan Avenue, that has since been converted to condominiums.
Hef's time in the mansion was not all work. The basement, referred to as the Grotto, housed an indoor circular swimming pool, where the famous Bunnies often frolicked. The ceiling/floor above the pool had a trap door, so guests could dive in from the first floor.
Some of the Bunnies lived dormitory-style on the mansion's second floor, paying $50 a month rent--no working condition fringe housing benefit for them. The house has a fully staffed restaurant kitchen that was staffed 24 hours a day.
Undoubtedly many famous celebrities visited Hefner at the mansion. The list includes the Rolling Stones, Babs Streisand, Norman Mailer, and Warren Beatty. Doctor Isham, however, didn't take a backseat to Hefner when it came to entertaining. He hosted both Theodore Roosevelt and Admiral Richard Peary in the mansion.
Memory and legend can be misleading when it comes to guests who actually spent time in the mansion During the time Hef lived there, he hosted two television shows: Playboy's Penthouse (1959-1961) and Playboy After Dark (1969-1970). The amazing array of guests included Cy Coleman, Ella Fitzgerald, the Grateful Dead, Harry Nilsson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Moms Mabley, Ike & Tina Turner, Anita O'Day, Lenny Bruce, Nat 'King' Cole, Patty Duke, Bob Newhart, Buddy Rich, Rex Reed, and many other notables. While the show at times appeared to be inside the mansion at 1340 North State Street, in fact, both shows were taped in television studios. Of course, that does not mean that many of the famous guests didn't stop by the mansion afterwards.
When the the Grateful Dead performed on Playboy After Dark in 1969, legend has it that their sound engineer and chemist, Stanley Owsley, proceeded to spike the crew's coffee with LSD. One can only wonder if and how anyone made it back to the mansion if legend is true.
In 1974, Hef left Chicago for permanent residence in LA. According to Culture Trip, he leased the space to the Art Institute of Chicago for $10 a year, until Hef donated it outright to the Institute in 1989. Hef had once taken a figure drawing class at the Art Institute, so the Art Institute's classes are can be good for its endowment.
The Art Institute used the space as a student dorm until it sold the mansion to a developer in 1993 for less than the $2.7 million asking price. The developer then converted the mansion into seven condominiums, which according to recent articles, are priced in the millions when they come on the market. Many the architectural features associated with Hef's time in the mansion are long gone. On my visit, I saw no evidence of the brass plate above the front door that read "Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare," which translates to " If You Don't Swing, Don't Ring."
Hef died on September 27, 2017. He outlived the Playboy lifestyle by several decade. That lifestyle is now rightly out of favor in the #MeToo era that Harvey Weinstein helped usher in this year. Had Weinstein been a produce the Sixties, he might have well been a guest at the mansion and on the television shows.
Weinstein is finished, but the mansions still stands. As I made this photograph, a tour bus parked in front of the mansion ("Get the Fuck Out of My Shot"). Fortunately, the guide only needed three minutes to describe what is another Chicago curiosity.
In Black and White
Entrance to Once Was the Playboy Mansion in Chicago