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Restoring the Past: the Dumas Hotel

by Linda Howard

Washington, D.C. has the Smithsonian Institution. Paris has the Louvre. Quebec has the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Britain has the Victoria and Albert Museum. And if the International Sex Workers Foundation for Art, Culture and Education (ISWFACE) has its way, Butte, Montana will have the Dumas Hotel.

The Dumas HotelOne of the longest-running brothels in the United States, the Dumas Hotel was built in 1890. A parlor house -- basically, a bordello for wealthy patrons -- its two-story, 43-room brick design is the last remaining example of "Victorian brothel" architecture. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1973, and closed its doors for good nine years later when its last madam, Ruby Garrett, was convicted of federal tax evasion. In 1991, the building was slated for destruction until antiques dealer Rudy Giecek saved it for its historic value, buying it and later selling it to ISWFACE [pronounced ice-face] as a permanent site for their organization and future cultural center.

Vintage postcard with safe sex slogan
Safe Sex Postcard

During its heyday, the brothel serviced not only wealthy clients in its luxurious upper suites, but also countless miners from the nearby copper mine, most of whom could only afford to visit the hotel's basement. The basement was divided into many tiny, cramped rooms, generally just big enough to hold a sink and a bed. Less-expensive prostitutes rented these "cribs", as they were called, for $2 - $5 a day; the women worked in three shifts to accomodate the 24-hour mine schedules. Tunnels that stretched the length of the red light district -- and, according to legend, even went to city hall -- gave easy access to these rooms. In exchange for a monthly "tribute", Butte's police and councilmembers looked the other way, viewing its red light district more-or-less as a civic service that kept its "upstanding" women from being harassed by the predominantly unmarried miners.

The federal government shut down the cribs in 1943 during World War II, as part of a campaign against low-rent prostitutes and venereal disease. The rooms were literally sealed away, with all of the personal effects inside left untouched.

WWI-era vibrator in wooden caseNow, ISWFACE is unsealing this past, unearthing artifacts from a bygone era. They range from postcards (above), Christmas cards and photographs to Vaseline jars, bullwhips, opium vials and a still-functioning, World War I-period metal vibrator (right). Once the building has been restored, these artifacts will be on display permanently as part of the future ISWFACE Cultural Center and Museum.

ISWFACE founder Norma Jean Almodovar wants the museum to present not only historical exhibits, but also current exhibits from sex workers around the world. The exhibits will not focus on sex, but on the sex workers themselves. "If people can see what we create... perhaps they will look at us differently," says Almodovar. "We are people; husbands and wives with families. Sex is just one thing we do."

ISWFACE needs significant help to pay for the Dumas Hotel's restoration. Donors can sponsor a crib or "adopt" bricks from the brothel, among other options. For more info, contact ISWFACE at (818) 892-2029, email iswface@iswface.org, or visit http://www.iswface.org on the Web.


Linda Howard is managing editrix of Anything That Moves.

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