Putting prostitution on the map

SUN JOURNAL

Montana: The restoration of a Butte brothel as a museum has created a debate about the oldest profession's place in history.

October 17, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

BUTTE, Mont. -- The Dumas Brothel closed in 1982 after more than a century of service to the men of Butte. Now it's back as a tourist attraction -- and the center of a storm over the place in history of the world's oldest profession.

On historic East Mercury Street in the heart of downtown, the Dumas is a regular stop on the Butte Chamber of Commerce-approved trolley tour of city landmarks.

Visitors can be guided through the building for $3. They can dress up in Victorian costumes and have their pictures taken in one of the brass beds, admire the art and artifacts of sex workers, and perhaps chat with the 48-year-old former Los Angeles police officer and Beverly Hills call girl who's restoring the Dumas as a museum of prostitution.

There's the problem. Some in Butte aren't enamored of the idea of paying historical due to prostitution. It glamorizes a bordello and sends the wrong message to the young people of the town, says a group that gathered 600 signatures of protest in the spring. "They [young people] might say, `Let's give it a try,' " two of the group's founders said in a letter to the Chamber of Commerce.

Nonsense, counters Norma Jean Almodovar, a self-described "activist for sex workers" who bought the Dumas nearly two years ago. She moved from Los Angeles with her husband, a retired movie actor, and brought with her the organization she heads, the International Sex Workers Foundation for Art, Culture and Education.

The acronym, says Almodovar, is pronounced ICE-FACE.

The history of the Dumas is as colorful as that of rough-and-tumble Butte. At the turn of the century, when the city's abundant copper mines made it the "richest hill on Earth," Butte had a six-block red-light district -- the biggest west of the Mississippi -- of which the Dumas was a centerpiece.

Historian Ellen Baumler has written extensively about the Dumas, about how in the early days it indirectly served the mining companies' interests, because "thousands of single miners would spend their paychecks and their time on entertainment, allowing less time and opportunity to organize against their bosses."

Today, almost nothing is left of mining in Butte, which has lost 70 percent of its 100,000 turn-of-the-century population. The Berkeley Pit, the last great project of the now-defunct Anaconda Co., is a gaping mile-wide, mile-deep hole slowly filling with acidic water just a few blocks from the Dumas.

Fittingly, Anaconda closed the pit the same year the sheriff closed the Dumas, and the pit, too, is a stop on the Butte trolley tour. Brothel and mine, intertwined in Butte history, are a strangely compelling duo.

Badly in need of repairs, the Dumas is nearly the last remnant of Butte's demimonde. It's a three-level structure with plush suites on the top floor for wealthy clients.

The main level has rooms and parlors connected by big doors, which could be opened for parties, then closed again for business.

The basement contains the cribs -- tiny rooms barely wide enough for a bed. Closed in 1943 as part of the war effort, the cribs only recently were reopened as time capsules preserving a bygone moment in the sex business -- or so the Dumas tour guide maintains.

If there's anything romantic about prostitution, it's not evident here. Prostitutes stood in the crib doorways, enticing customers. When they departed suddenly in 1943, the ladies left behind liquor and Butte Special Beer bottles, cigarette packages, jars of Vaseline, 10-minute timers, sexy clothes, playing cards and a metal vibrator dating to about 1911.

It's a dark and dank place, once connected by tunnels front and back to uptown Butte businesses. The tunnels had a practical as well as a discreet purpose: Winter nights in the mile-high city can fall to 40 degrees below zero.

The social hierarchy of the brothel fascinates Baumler, who works for the Montana Historical Society in Helena. "You can see the layering and the changes inside the Dumas as the economy of Butte changed and the business of prostitution changed," she says.

Baumler compares the Dumas to "DNA preserved in amber that holds the blueprint of a species." Similarly, the brothel "holds a tangible blueprint of the oldest profession at all its levels, from the highest-class suite to the dirt floor of the meanest crib."

Almodovar heads a group that bought the Dumas nearly two years ago from Butte resident Rudy Giecek, who remains as curator, manager and tour guide. It was Giecek who saved the Dumas from demolition in 1990, buying it from a madam who was letting it go to pay back taxes.

"It's an important building not only for the history of prostitution, but for the history of the American West," says Almodovar, who adds that she stopped practicing her profession "some years ago."

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