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July 16, 2018

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Once a getaway where Playboy bunnies flolicked, now a ‘black hole’

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Dave Sanders / The New York Times

The Playboy Club in Vernon Township, N.J., April 5, 2018. A state judge ordered that the residents have to leave, citing a local ordinance that forbids extended stays in the building.

VERNON, N.J. — The club evoked an air of exclusivity by design. A thicket of trees shielded the Playboy Club from public view, and it was set at the end of a long driveway, reachable only by winding country roads. Members had to show a card — a key, they called it — to get inside, where, in its prime, stars like Frank Sinatra and Ann-Margret performed and women in bikinis and bunny ears served drinks by the pool.

Decades later, though, any sign of that glitz is long gone. Much of the building, which housed the club and a hotel, has been sealed off for years, left to gradually be swallowed by encroaching woods. Roaches dart into crevices and bats and other vermin have sneaked inside. Yet in dozens of its rooms, there are people who consider the old club home.

Christine Kymer moved in more than six years ago, when she worked at a local resort. She shares a small suite with her fiance and two sons, cooking meals with a hot plate and washing dishes in the bathroom sink. The suite is tightly packed, she said, but she also finds it comfortable. She has felt safe here. But now, she and others are being forced to leave, with local officials saying that the accommodations are dangerous and squalid.

“It’s very stressful,” Kymer, 37, said on a recent evening, noting that her family had not settled on a new place to live, with the looming deadline to leave by “close of business” on Monday, as a notice from the court says. “Trying to find a place in this area is like a needle in a haystack.”

Playboy Clubs were once scattered around the world, offering an escape where the Everyman, whether in London or Omaha, Nebraska, could feel like a member of a more cosmopolitan elite, as long as he could pay the $25 yearly fee to join. The one here opened in the early 1970s. Hugh Hefner, Playboy’s founder, envisioned it as a getaway less than two hours by car from New York City. But success never came. Instead, there was a steady descent that dragged on for decades. These past few years, said Harry Shortway, the mayor of Vernon, it has “just been a black hole.”

Vernon, a township of about 23,000, is a community carved into the tree-covered slopes of northwestern New Jersey, just below the New York state line. Its landscape is dotted with country houses, barns and stretches of wilderness populated with deer, foxes and hawks. The area has long had ski resorts, and at one time the township was home to Action Park, a water park that gained notoriety for its wildly dangerous rides.

Playboy sold the club in the early 1980s, and subsequent owners had even less success. In recent years, some rooms were rented by workers for nearby resorts: dishwashers, housekeepers, cooks. The once glamorous reputation was sullied by recurring problems involving drugs and crime, the mayor said. A decade ago, a man was beaten to death outside.

Inside, Shortway said, officials discovered that residents were living in deplorable conditions. In one bathroom, he said, an umbrella had been hung up to deflect the torrent coming from a leaking toilet upstairs. In some rooms, residents had built walls to divvy up space, and officials saw smoke detectors that were blocked by cabinets.

A fire or disaster of some kind struck Shortway as inevitable. “I don’t want to be the one that says, ‘I should have done something,'” he said.

A state judge ordered that the residents had to leave, citing a local ordinance that forbids extended stays in the building. Many residents, who had been renting from various landlords, will receive $1,500 to help them move.

“We are hopeful that everyone leaves their room in accordance with the judge’s order, because we don’t feel that anyone should be living there,” said Thomas J. Molica, a lawyer representing the Metairie Corp., an owner of the property that is seeking to redevelop it. “I hope these people find alternate living arrangements, and in the end, I feel they will be much better off.”

There is a hope that the property will be better off as well. Local officials, looking for tax revenue, would like for it to regain some of its former luster. “I see the potential,” Shortway said.

The Playboy Clubs started in the 1960s, fitting into a moment in American culture, as captured on television shows like “Mad Men,” that was seemingly defined by a kind of boozy sophistication, mixing sleekly tailored suits with stiff martinis. At the Playboy Clubs, jackets were required in the dining room, and fraternizing with the “bunnies” was strictly prohibited.

Some of the decadence of the magazine certainly bled into the clubs, but Hefner sought to make them less risqué, said Patty Farmer, an entertainment historian who has written books about Playboy and the clubs. “It was a classy joint,” she said. “It was still the type of place you could take your clients for lunch and your wife for dinner.”

When the club in Vernon was being planned, New Jersey was considering expanding gambling in the state, and Hefner had hoped the club could be a casino, like Playboy’s enormously profitable one in London. But when that failed to come to fruition, the club’s demise became inevitable. (The last of the original Playboy Clubs closed in 1988 in Lansing, Michigan.)

Even so, many remember a decade when the club was a draw. Paul Davison, who grew up nearby, was a regular, using his father’s key as a teenager before joining himself. “In its heyday, it was just gorgeous,” Davison, an artist in New Orleans, said. “It was well kept. You can’t even imagine what it was looking at it now.

On a recent afternoon, the old resort looked like a scar gashed through otherwise unblemished nature and a well-maintained golf course. The vast parking lot was desolate except for a small patch of cars, some with no air in their tires. Vultures loitered on balconies and around the pool, which was coated in grime and puddles of standing water.

“This is actually basically a historical site because of Hugh Hefner,” said Lambert Johanson, who has lived here for about three years.

Over time, a sense of community formed among many residents. Until recently, Kymer said, more than a dozen children had lived in the building. Johanson, who does not have a car, has come to rely on Kymer, who is a homemaker, for rides.

Their neighbors have been trickling out. Kymer’s family and Johanson were among the stragglers. Kymer’s brother and his fiance also have a room here, but they had found a new place and were pulling together money for the security deposit.

Some of the residents, including Johanson, came to the building with criminal pasts or a history of run-ins with authorities.

Johanson, 57, said he had lived in the woods near the restaurant where he worked as a dishwasher before he rented a room in the building. He said he was disabled. An injured back, among other ailments, prevented him from working. “I’m falling apart,” he said. He had lost the room when he could not pay the rent, he said, and he has been staying with another resident.

He said that he had recently sold off most of his possessions. He held onto his television, his DVDs and his footlocker. He wanted to lighten his load because of the uncertainty of his situation. Unlike many of the others, he said, he would not receive resettlement money because he was no longer a rent-paying tenant.

“Where am I supposed to go?” Johanson said as he smoked a cigarette outside, figuring that on Monday night, he might have to return to the woods.