The building where all the magic happened was ... well, it never had much of a name. While we were in it, we called it "the downtown building" (as opposed to the administrative offices on the north edge of Lake Geneva), "the Dungeon" (because the Dungeon Hobby Shop occupied the ground floor), or "Hotel Clair" or "the Clair" (because that's what it had been in a previous incarnation).
Here's what it looks like now. This is a far cry from what it used to be.
First, downtown Lake Geneva has undergone significant renovation in the last 25 years. Some of these buildings are quite old -- this one was built in 1874, so it was over 100 years old by the time TSR moved in. Here's how it looked on a post card from the '50s:
The Hotel Clair is a cornerstone of the town, literally. It stands on the SE corner of the intersection of Main and Broad Streets, one block north of the lake. In 1981, Lake Geneva had just three stoplights, and this was one of them. The old hotel was the tallest building in town until that ugly monstrosity behind it (Lake Geneva Towers) was built on a lot previously occupied by a hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright! The elevator tower visible above the Clair is part of the Lake Geneva Towers; the Clair has no elevator.
In the '90s, the Clair got a major facelift: sandblasting, tuckpointing, new windows, and lots of structural work that you can't see (more on that later). That was years after we moved out. To see the building as it looked in 1981 ...
First, remove those huge stoplights hanging out over the streets. The stoplights were simple, three-lights-on-a-pole jobs.
Second, replace those nice awnings with ugly, shingled overhangs.
Third, cover the bottom half of the building in dark, cracked, weathered paneling.
Fourth, imagine a rusty fire escape hanging on the side of the building.
Fifth, hang a sign over the front door declaring this to be "The Dungeon Hobby Shop" along with various other posters, billboards, and placards.
Finally, imagine it beneath 100 years of accumulated grime, soot, and dirt.
In fact, it would look like exactly like it does in this shot (provided by Kevin Hendryx):
Note especially the giant beer billboard plastered on the south wall above Hogs & Kisses, one of Lake Geneva's classier joints, and the ramshackle fire escape.
I got into considerable trouble over that fire escape.
The main entrance for employees was the side door visible under the fire escape. Only managers had keys for that door, and the first one to arrive in the morning unlocked it so everyone else could get inside. One particular summer morning, a group of us were waiting outside the still-locked door, wondering when Harold Johnson or Al Hammack would arrive to let us in. After what seemed like an interminable stretch (but probably was about six minutes), I'd had enough of waiting. I scrambled up onto the overhang, hoisted myself onto the fire escape, and from there pushed open one of the 2nd-floor windows into the art department (no one locked their windows -- I don't think it was possible). Having defeated TSR's security system, I strolled back down the stairs, unlocked the door from the inside, and let everyone in. Problem solved, right?
Wrong. This happened to be Kim Eastland's first day on the job as director of the RPGA. He showed up just as I opened the door and was, to say the least, surprised at how easily I'd "broken into" the building. He called Dan Matheson, head of facilities at that time, and explained what happened. Let me stress here that Kim wasn't ratting me out; he wanted to prevent a repeat of the situation where employees were stranded on the sidewalk, unable to get to work. But later that day, Dan poked his head into my office to declare, "Someone climbed in through a window this morning. If I find out who that someone was, his ass is fired." Then he shot me the stern, hairy eyeball as only Dan could (Dan was an enormous, bushy-bearded highlander; when he blasted someone with the hairy eyeball, what remained could usually be scraped into a shoebox).
So here's the thing: Dan didn't deliver that ultimatum to anyone else in the building except me ...
As you can see in the newer photos, the Clair has benefited from a lot of fixing up. The ground floor is now an upscale chocolate shop. Upstairs are boutiques and offices for realtors and lawyers.
The building next door along Main Street (now Geneva Jake's) used to be Ben Franklin's, a small department store of the type my dad would call a five-and-dime. Why is that important? Because even in 1981, you could walk into Ben Franklin's and, for about $2, buy a bag of plastic monsters straight from Hong Kong. In it, you'd get the figures that inspired the rust monster, bulette, owlbear, and I don't recall how many more. In other words, those monsters made it into D&D because some spaced-out toy maker in China cast his hallucinations in plastic and shipped them to the U.S.A.
One of the more infamous Hotel Clair incidents occurred when Evan Robinson, armed with a squirt gun that resembled an M-16, perched himself in one of the upstairs windows (much as this workman is doing) and sighted down the street with his steely sniper's gaze. An alarmed citizen spotted him and called the police, who showed up ready to confront a gunman. This might have been understandable, had the alleged assault rifle not been bright orange and about 16 inches long.
Next time ... More on the Clair, inside and out, including The Dungeon Hobby Shop.