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Once a luxurious Playboy resort, it’s now just an overgrown, vacant N.J. hotel

NJ.com logo NJ.com 11/27/2020 Rob Jennings, nj.com
a man and a woman sitting on a chair: Then-Vernon Mayor Harry Shortway, now the township's council president, and zoning officer Alison Larocca at a municipal court hearing in Vernon, Oct. 24, 2017 © Custom /Jerry McCrea / For NJ Advance Media/nj.com/TNS Then-Vernon Mayor Harry Shortway, now the township's council president, and zoning officer Alison Larocca at a municipal court hearing in Vernon, Oct. 24, 2017

A version of this story was published on March 1, 2020

The former Playboy Club in Vernon captivates in a way the late Hugh Hefner likely never imagined.

It brought some glamour to a rural, sparsely-populated region where, as the saying went, cows outnumbered people.

Now it feels almost like a lost city.

Vernon Councilman Harry Shortway walked through the building two years ago. At least 35 years had passed since the Playboy Club closed but reminders of it were everywhere, he recalled.

a sign on the side of a building: The former Playboy Club building in Vernon, Feb. 27, 2020 © Rob Jennings | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com/Rob Jennings / NJ Advance Media for NJ.com/nj.com/TNS The former Playboy Club building in Vernon, Feb. 27, 2020

He spotted the drained indoor pool, the cabaret that hosted Frank Sinatra, Ann-Margret and other celebrities, and the section that Hefner reportedly planned to convert to a casino until proposals to allow gambling collapsed.

a large brick building: The former Playboy Club building in Vernon, Feb. 27, 2020 © Rob Jennings | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com/Rob Jennings / NJ Advance Media for NJ.com/nj.com/TNS The former Playboy Club building in Vernon, Feb. 27, 2020

Shortway said it was “really eerie.”

“It was like I was back in the 1970s. It’s like the people got up and left,” Shortway said.

The building endured as a hotel with condominiums, and eventually rental units, in the decades after the Playboy Club’s departure.

The last remaining occupants, mostly low-income workers and their families, exited in April 2018 following a lengthy court battle.

There was optimism that the eight-story building, which opened in 1971 and cost Playboy Enterprises Inc. nearly $30 million, would find a new purpose.

Maybe a satellite campus for a college or senior housing, Shortway mused, or a new hotel — a role it played when the Playboy Club was on site and for many years afterward.

However, nothing has happened.

Thomas Molica, attorney for owner Metairie Corp., said last winter it “is continuing to explore possibilities for the hotel property.”

In the meantime, the former Playboy Club building continues to draw attention.

Vernon Police Chief Daniel Young said his officers have responded to trespassing complaints that usually prove to be unfounded.

Someone once reported seeing a bus dropping children off in the parking lot. Police determined it never happened.

“We have had no actual confirmation of anyone living there,” Young said in February.

Young said that, in January, two men slipped inside but were quickly discovered.

“They got in through one of the doors,” the police chief said, adding he did not know if the incursion resulted in any charges.

While Molica said no one is living there, the building is not entirely empty. Young noted that the owner employs maintenance workers and security.

Playboy Clubs began popping up in large cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Miami, starting in the 1960s.

It was a pretty big deal in Vernon, a rural municipality in northwestern New Jersey, when Hefner’s company announced it would be building not far from resorts offering skiing and other attractions.

For about a decade, the Playboy Club in Vernon soared. Hefner, founder of Playboy Magazine, had a suite nestled among the 600 or so rooms.

Then the party ended and the building was sold.

Officials in Vernon Township and the building’s owner have been at odds for years.

The eviction of the renters was set in motion when Vernon began enforcing a 1999 municipal ordinance barring anyone from staying more than 30 days.

Vernon Mayor Howard Burrell, who succeeded Shortway as mayor in January, said in February that the tenants “were living in horrible conditions.”

“Sewage was leaking into living spaces, extension cord wires were running throughout rooms and the fire alarm system did not properly function,” Burrell said.

At that time, Vernon was claiming Metairie Corp. owed $724,000 in delinquent taxes; the owner was contesting large fines — the precise amount was not available — stemming from municipal fire code violations.

The township also was seeking to convince the state not to renew the site’s liquor license, which hadn’t been used in 12 years, Burrell said.

Molica declined to comment on the protracted dispute.

Shortway, who opted not to seek a second term as mayor and ran for council last fall, claims an unusual connection to the Playboy Club.

In 1992, he moved with his family to a barn in Vernon, more than two centuries old, and discovered 22 bunk beds.

“All in the attic,” he said.

He was told the bunk beds had been used by renters, including some ‘Playboy bunnies,’ the costumed waitresses at the Playboy Club.

He also found speakers and stereo equipment in the basement with the Playboy insignia.

Paul Crowley, a former mayor of Franklin Borough, lives about 7 miles from the building.

In the early 1980s, he and his wife hired a baby-sitter named Mary for their 5-year-old son. Mary’s other job was being a Playboy Bunny.

One day, the Crowleys were both late coming home from work, so Mary brought young Paul Jr. to the “bunny hutch,” a location on the club grounds where some of the women lived.

Paul Crowley drove there to pick him up.

Mary was a fairly recent graduate of Vernon Township High School and did not live in the building, but Crowley recalled that she got dressed for work at the Playboy Club.

“They weren’t allowed to bring their costumes home,” Crowley said.

The former Playboy Club building is located about a half-mile from Route 517, accessible via a driveway that also extends to the golf course.

Drivers pass by a onetime guard station and a crumbling tennis course before reaching the spacious parking lot.

The exterior of the building is recognizable from 1970s film footage, minus the Playboy flag flying in front.

There is a glass entrance where cars used to drop off celebrity guests and performers.

On Thursday, a large handwritten sign on the door offered a stark reminder that those days are gone forever.

“Sorry, entrance closed,” it read.

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Rob Jennings may be reached at rjennings@njadvancemedia.com.

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