If you were to go off the beaten path of the major interstates in America, the last thing you might expect would be to find an old bordello as an official Visitor Center for a town! But, alas, it is true that the one and only bordello listed on the National Historic Register is the visitor center for Fort Smith, Arkansas. Have I piqued your interest?
Fort Smith is actually the second largest town/city in Arkansas and a county seat, to boot.With beginnings as a frontier military post back in 1817 the history is truly rich – for the good and the bad. It served the Confederate army during the Civil War but eventually came under command of the Union troops until 1865.
A famous figure in the city was Judge Isaac Parker – known for his hangin’s and had the nickname of the “Hanging Judge” to prove it along with the record of hanging six convicted criminals in one day.
Travel into Fort Smith and, if you are like me, look around for the fort. It’s there but not much is left of it thanks to a tornado back in 1996.
But I brought you here to learn a little about Miss Laura’s Social club. Not only is it the Visitor Center but it is the only remaining building from “The Row” – an infamous red light district that served the area and various men and soldiers back in the glory days. It was built in 1896 as a respectable hotel and bought two short years later by Miss Laura Ziegler. Then in 1910 the rest of The Row buildings were devastated by fire from an explosion – also known as the night of the “lingerie parade” for some obvious reasons…
Miss Laura sold the house to Bertha Gale Dean in 1911 and since she seems to have disappeared into the world with only her famous history to speak for her.
The building fell into disrepair after Ms Dean’s death in 1948 despite the fact that she left the house to her alleged paramour, Jules Bartholemy. The house was purchased in 1963 under threats of demolition from the city and restored for its inclusion into the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. It then served as a social club and restaurant for a time then became the visitor center in 1992.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the bordello, oh, em, Visitor Center. I felt as if I were stepping back in time and truly expected a lady in all her revelry to come down the beautiful stairs on the arm of a gentleman soldier headed for the absolutely fabulous bar at the end of the hall. Of course, I had to pose for a quick photo at it – the stained glass above it I found stunning and honestly I wished I could take the whole thing home with me!
There were several rooms that depicted the life of the bordello- with few of the original still there to show. My personal favorite is the, likely, cast iron bathtub in what was Miss Laura’s room. I swooned over it I assure you – and almost was brave enough to ask if I could go into the room and touch it, but alas, I behaved!
There are several other interesting pieces that you will find when you visit the bordello (yes, I know I should say Visitor Center but I adore calling it the bordello!). One is the stained glass that dominates the stairs. It is a true beauty with two women side by side. I don’t have the specifics on them but they do have the original drawing that was the template for the glass on the wall.
And to cap off all the beauty of the building there are two original pieces of latticework present. One stayed with the home over the years and the other was donated not long ago to the bordello from a private collection. No one knows how the woman obtained the latticework but her family donated it to the bordello upon her death. A nice little mystery to close out this little travel piece.
Part of the “Travel With Me!” series