When my friend Michele and I were teenagers, her mother had a totally cool boyfriend. Steve was ripped from the pages of Hip Swinger magazine: Bell bottoms, puka shells, Nik-Nik shirts. He had shiny, black, feathered hair, impossibly white teeth, and — long before it was faddish — a home gym, which meant he also had gigantic muscles. Steve never wore a shirt, which was distracting, to say the least. He seemed perfectly happy with my friend's mom, but he always looked like a guy who was out to bag babes.
Steve had style. You knew this not only because of his Angels Flight suits but because he lived far from the stultifying suburban streets where Michele and I were being raised — way the heck over at 12th Street and Maryland in a place he called "the Playboy Apartments," which until recently I thought was Steve's nickname for his home. I pictured a hot tub, a heart-shaped bed, maybe a wrought-iron spiral staircase like the one Doris Day had on TV.
I had the particulars wrong, but the concept behind the complex, which became known as the Aphrodisiac Lofts and later the Playboy Apartments after they were featured in that magazine's October 1965 issue, was dead-on. Designed by Modernist architect Miles Stahm and built in 1964, the development at 1123 East Maryland featured loft-style, curved-wall bedrooms and 22-foot ceilings with circular skylights that overlooked custom, cast-concrete fireplaces, flagstone and lava-rock walls, and open-riser floating staircases, all crammed into 900 square feet of space that screamed "Swinging '60s!"
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Steve's place had a sunken conversation pit in the living room, a rock waterfall and pond under the stairs, and a bright orange, metal beehive fireplace. He'd decorated it in a tacky post-Summer of Love style that made me swoon: Hanging beads, a glass cube coffee table, and one of those suspended wicker chairs in which Michele liked to sit cross-legged.
The Playboy Apartments are significant in Phoenix, according to architecture enthusiast Stuart Collins, because they weren't renovated from an earlier design. "You saw a lot of that in the '60s and '70s, especially in Phoenix and Palm Springs," says Collins, whose book MCM! Mid-Century Modern and the Twenty-First Century will be published later this year. "Designers were coming in and taking places from the '20s or the '50s and trying to make them look like swinging singles pads to attract more renters."
But the Playboy Apartments were designed from the floor up, Collins points out. "In order to update these units today, you'd have to jackhammer pretty much every detail out of them, and then you'd be left with an empty box full of holes. They were really renovation-proof, in a way."
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That's a good thing. It means that most of the units appear to be ripped straight from, well, a Playboy pictorial circa 1967. While nearly all of the kitchens and baths have been remodeled over the years (jettisoning Stahm's original low, pine cabinetry and fitted hardware), the lacquered floors, flagstone walls, and sweeping metal staircases remain.
This is why mid-century modernists have flocked to the Playboy condos in recent years. The owners of local high-style, mid-century furniture stores Red and Haus both have bought units there.
Even if some moron had swooped in and ripped out everything there is to love about the Playboy, the name of the place will never change. That's because the central courtyard is dominated by what looks an awful lot like a huge, rabbit-head-shaped swimming pool.