Seedy history

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On a recent trip out West I once again ran across many places that want to market their past as a historic house of ill repute, brothel, bordello… those places where “sporting ladies” made a living. I must admit I’m amused by these commercial enterprises that play up their salacious past. Today these restaurants and bed and breakfasts attract customers perhaps because of their history. I suppose their novelty has sometimes helped preserve them.

Driving down the street in Williams, AZ, my eye caught a red feather boa in the second floor window… I realized it was draped around a mannequin sticking out the window. The Red Garter B&B was formerly the Tetzlaff building, built in 1897 as a bordello.  Adaptive reuse example #1.

In Silverton, CO, I walked down the notorious Blair Street – the walking tour self-guide challenged me to “take a walk on the wild side of Silverton, and relive its raucous, bawdy days when Blair Street was lined with bordellos and saloons.” I passed the Shady Lady restaurant built as the last brothel in town in 1888 where “Mamie Murphy” and “Kate Starr” held court. The most famous madam was “Jew Fanny.” Natalia’s restaurant, across the street, proudly proclaimed that it is “home to one of the oldest standing bordellos in town built in 1883. Sorry that service is no longer provided… but the food is great.” Known as the infamous 557, it was supposedly one of the first “dens of iniquity” on Blair Street. Now it attracts the hordes of tourists who pour off of the Durango-Silverton narrow gauge railroad. Adaptive reuse examples #2 and #3.

In the late 1990s I visited Cripple Creek, CO another historic mining town. I’ll never forget my tour of the Old Homestead House Museum, a restored brothel and marketed as Colorado’s only bordello museum. An online search reveals that there are others around the country. I was fascinated by the interpretation and rather impressed by the historical context. Like it or not, prostitution was a part of western history and why not interpret it? I have mixed thoughts about opening a bed and breakfast in a former brothel, but historic sites should seek to interpret broad themes in history and a western landscape dotted with brothel museums seems to make sense.

What do you think? Have you visited a brothel museum? Tell about it.

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3 Responses to Seedy history

  1. KBF says:

    I have long been intrigued by historic sites that take advantage of their shady past or “haunted” present. The example that leaps instantly to mind is Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. I have really enjoyed both of my visits to ESP and wish that it could rely less heavily on such events as “Terror Behind the Walls.” That said, events themed around the haunted nature of the site help to fund the ongoing conservation efforts at ESP and I support those efforts wholeheartedly and the site does an excellent job of interpreting the history of prisons in America and the role of ESP in that history. The issue for many of these sites remains the quality of the interpretation rather than the reliance on their seedy histories.

  2. historian says:

    I agree that ESP is a fascinating place. I like that it is interpreted in its partially preserved state… it adds to the seediness. I noticed that the visitor demographics were broader than most history sites – people who may not like the idea of visiting a history museum may be intrigued by the subject of a prison.

  3. KBF says:

    ESP does seem to have nearly universal appear. Perhaps we can all understand the feeling of being in a prison more than we can make sense of, say, Edgar Allen Poe’s house. Barriers to understanding, in the form of necessary prior knowledge, disappear. Instead of pretentious and overtly intellectual, the site becomes accessible.

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