By Eric Herman
Every once in a while, I must admit that being editor of WaterShapes can be lots of fun. Just this past March, for example, I had the privilege of visiting the home of Playboy magazine’s founder, Hugh Hefner – not to attend a gala party or special event of any kind, but to check out the renovation of a swimming pool.
The invitation came courtesy of Bruce Riley, president of Rock Formations, an artificial-rock specialty firm that had been hired to transform an ordinary backyard pool located across the street from the famous estate into a permanent, naturalistic video and film location for Hefner’s company.
As Riley explains it, Hefner had purchased the neighboring home to be used as a sort of “overflow mansion” for the steady parade of guests and models who work on the company’s videos and photo shoots. Riley invited me and WaterShapes’ National Sales Manager, Camma Barsily, to check out the work he was doing on the newly acquired property. As part of the visit we were to be allowed to tour the grounds of the main mansion across the street.
Before that, however, we took a long look at the renovation project (click here) and were impressed by the beautiful environment that Riley’s firm had created in what had been a lackluster (but estate-sized) backyard. After that tour concluded, we made our way across the street.
As we arrived, the place was crawling with dozens of maintenance workers and caterers preparing for an event that evening. We worked our way around the grounds for about an hour and had a wonderful time – no movie stars or bathing beauties in sight, but we did see the famous swimming pool and grotto along with the gracious zoo, game room and Japanese garden.
As a consumer of popular culture, I’ve seen photos of and heard stories about the mansion, and I was more than a little curious to see what this most famous of “private” residences was like in person. Unlike most people, however, I’ve had the privilege of becoming friends with architect Ron Dirsmith, the man Hefner hired in 1971 to design the interior and exterior of the Tudor-style mansion just after he purchased the six-acre property.
Dirsmith – who, along with his wife Suzanne, has coincidentally contributed an article to this issue about designing another high-end estate (click here to see “A Place for All Seasons”) – has been generous in relating personal stories about his long working relationship with Hefner. And having heard about the late-night meetings with famous magazine mogul, his meticulous attention to detail and the sweeping concepts that went into shaping the whole property, I was truly fascinated to see what it is that makes this place so special.
Aside from the obvious cachet associated with all things Playboy, I believe that Playboy Mansion West, and especially its storied swimming pool and rock grotto, are designed with playfulness and a delight in surprise and mystery that give the location an otherworldly feeling. The stained-glass skylights in the grotto, the meandering paths in an around the animal habitats, and the many sheltered “trysting” places (Dirsmith’s word, not mine) make this the kind of place that brings a smile to your face at every turn.
Looking back, I’m delighted to have caught an up-close glimpse of such a legendary landscape. Even more than that, I feel lucky to have the chance to get to know the fascinating people who create places designed to capture our imaginations.