Monkey Business at the Sillman Hotel

The Davenport’s “Matador Room” did not actually feature bullfighting, the Desert Hotel’s “Mirage Room” could only offer such hallucinations as alcohol provided, and the Coeur d’Alene Hotel’s “Donkey Room” did not feature any live burros. The Hotel Sillman’s Monkey Room, however… well, gibbons aren't technically monkeys, but they were close enough for Spokane's nightlife in the 1950s and 60s.

There’s nothing terribly notable about the Chevron station on the corner of Monroe Street and Third Avenue. A person fueling up their vehicle might admire the elegant Brotherhood of Friends building across the street, or perhaps notice the Steam Plant’s smokestacks in the distance. But back in the 1950s, they would have looked across the intersection to see happy people coming and going from a five-story hotel, its facade blazing with a neon sign that advertised a cocktail lounge called the Monkey Room.

The Sillman Hotel was a brick building on the corner of Monroe and Third Avenue, built by George and William Sillman, a pair of brothers who had come to Spokane in 1897. They constructed hundreds of early Spokane homes and buildings, some of which are now on the historical register. The Sillman brothers announced the hotel’s completion in late 1909, and a fifth floor was added in 1910. Brother George operated the hotel from its opening until 1945, when he retired and sold the hotel and associated properties for an estimated $250,000.

After several changes of ownership, the Sillman eventually landed with the Cardinal Investment Company in 1950. The Cardinal era was the heyday of the Sillman Hotel, and it also coincided with the 1950s cocktail boom. The Sillman originally tried to get into the cocktail lounge game with its “Cardinal Lounge,” but the impulsive acquisition of two gibbons by a manager of the hotel gave them the opening for a truly distinctive nightlife spot: The Monkey Room.

The Monkey Room advertised itself as having baby gibbons imported "direct from Siam" by Sillman Hotel management. The gibbons, named Benny and Fuzzy, lived in a glass cage in the cocktail lounge. Their habitat was decorated with branches and leaves, and the lounge was decorated in a matching tropical style. The pair entertained many guests over the years, and were heavily featured in the Sillman’s advertising.

Although they were much beloved and brought joy to many, a glass cage inside a cocktail lounge was not an ideal habitat for these intelligent and social animals. Nor was Spokane full of resources for gibbon owners in need: when Benny caught pneumonia, he was taken to Northwest Seed and Pet (then called Northwest Seed and Insecticide) for observation by its owner, Harry Gross. Gross did sell various primates as pets and operated the Jungle Town zoo within his store, but he was not a veterinarian. While Benny recovered from his pneumonia, he passed away a few years later in 1955. The Sillman brought in another gibbon named Farfel to keep the grieving Fuzzy company.

In 1958, the Monkey Room finally acquired actual monkeys. A pair of capuchins, sometimes called “organ-grinder monkeys,” took up residence in the glass cage. (The gibbons were no longer present, although it's not clear precisely when and why they were removed.) Spokane’s mayor, Willard “Duke” Taft, chose the names Monkey See and Monkey Do in a naming contest. Monkey See and Monkey Do were thought to be a father-and-son pair until they unexpectedly produced a third capuchin. This newcomer was dubbed Banana Face.

The surprise arrival of Banana Face in 1961 is the last newspaper mention of monkeys in the Monkey Room. That year saw the introduction of something even more appealing to Spokane’s party crowd: a hot new dance craze called “the Twist.” In fact, the Monkey Room was the venue that introduced this dance to Spokane. It offered live music and on-site dance instructors to teach dancers the new moves.

At first, Twist Night was only a one-night charity event. Then, Twist Night was twice a week. Within a few months, every night was Twist Night at the Monkey Room. Sillman mainstays Chick and Gene rebranded themselves as “Chick and Gene’s Monkey Twisters” to provide the tunes. The Monkey Room also shifted from a cocktail bar to the newly-trendy tiki lounge style in this era. A menu from its tiki phase offers such enigmatic delights as the Passionate Monkey, the Shark’s Fin, and the Missionary’s Downfall.

Despite such appealing beverage offerings and the unquestionable draw of Twist Night, the Sillman was in dire financial straits by 1963. Bankruptcy threatened, and Cardinal sold the Sillman to James P. “Pat” Purvis, a well-known Spokane developer. The new management was apparently not interested in tying its branding to exotic animals, and renamed The Monkey Room to the Tahitian Room. A visitor to the new Tahitian Room, writing about his experience in the Spokesman in 1963, did not mention any non-human primates on site.

Pat Purvis had ambitious plans to remodel the Sillman into a motor hotel. Unfortunately, Purvis himself was in a difficult financial situation: after being shorted funds for his work on the Century 21 Expo in Seattle, his construction business was no longer bondable and his assets were seized. It would be 1988 before the courts declared that he should be repaid his original expenses, plus relief for the loss of business. Better late than never, but it was far too late to save his business, and far too late to save the Sillman. Despite a defiant newspaper advertisement in 1968 saying that the Sillman was “here to stay,” the building was demolished in 1969.

The lingering mystery of the Monkey Room lies in the fate of its monkeys and “monkeys.” Did they die young, like Benny? Both capuchins and gibbons can live fifty years or more in captivity, given appropriate care. Were they taken in by Sillman management, or passed along to Jungle Town to become some of the many exotic pets kept in private homes during the era? Perhaps they even found their way to a zoo or wildlife rescue that could offer them expert care and an expansive, enriching habitat. Strange to think, but it’s possible: decades after the Sillman and the Monkey Room were gone, Fuzzy, Farfel, Monkey See, Monkey Do, and Banana Face could have been living out quiet retirements, reminiscing from time to time about their strange careers as nightclub entertainers.