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The former Miss Laura’s Social Club, a house of prostitution, serves as a unique visitor center for Fort Smith (Sebastian County) and is a reminder of the town’s rich history. Located at 123 First Street, it is the only former bordello in Arkansas listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
On the border between what was the known United States and Indian Territory, Fort Smith was one of the historic Old West towns. Being a border town invited the business of prostitution into the town, and several bordellos were established around the turn of the century.
Built in 1896 as the Riverfront Commercial Hotel, the house at 123 First Street was bought by Laura Ziegler in 1898. Zeigler borrowed $3,000 from a banker to buy the building. She renovated the building and opened it as a brothel in 1903. She repaid her loan in only seventeen months.
Miss Laura’s was on what was known as “The Row” in Fort Smith, an infamous red-light district. It was one of the most celebrated bordellos in the Southwest, and her ladies were known as the healthiest and most sophisticated in Fort Smith.
In 1910, business began to falter as more and more people in Fort Smith wanted to do away with the red-light district. Two houses in the district burned to the ground and others were damaged on January 7, 1910, when an oil storage tank exploded, sending the women and their customers into the street. This was known as “the night of the lingerie parade.” Ziegler realized that business was going to take a turn for the worse, and she sold the house to Bertha Gale Dean—known as “Big Bertha”—in 1911 for $47,000. Little is known of Ziegler after that.
The area soon deteriorated into a slum, and the house became a haven for drunkards and drifters. Despite the decline in the area, the house at 123 First Street remained a brothel through much of the early twentieth century. Bertha Dean ran the brothel until her death in 1948. She left it to Jules Bartholemy, a man who lived in the house at the time and with whom Dean was rumored to have had a relationship.
The building was eventually abandoned, and in 1963, the local government announced that, unless a buyer was found, the house would be demolished. Donald Reynolds, founder of Donrey Media Group, bought the house and saved it from demolition. The building was selected in 1973 for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, and restoration began in 1983. A year later, Miss Laura’s Social Club and Restaurant opened. Its life as a restaurant was relatively brief, and it reopened as the visitor center in the fall of 1992.
Miss Laura’s has kept its unique style of architecture through the years. While it is a simple clapboard building, it does have a mansard roof trimmed in wrought iron and oeil-de-boeuf (eye of the ox) dormer windows. These touches make it an example of baroque Victorian architecture. The interior is decorated as it would have been during Ziegler’s time, with furniture and wallpaper of the period. Each guestroom door has a transom bearing a lady’s name. A few original articles remain, including a stained-glass window.
Although the building has survived time and changes of ownership and has escaped the wrecking ball, on April 21, 1996, a tornado swept through downtown Fort Smith, ripping the roof off of Miss Laura’s. The visitor center was moved temporarily to a trailer in the parking lot while the building was repaired. More than a century after it was built, Miss Laura’s still welcomes visitors to Fort Smith.
For additional information:
Clines, Francis X. “An Ill Wind Is No Match for a House of Ill Repute.” New York Times, November 27, 1997, p. 8F. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/1997/11/27/garden/an-ill-wind-is-no-match-for-a-house-of-ill-repute.html (accessed May 11, 2015).
Eddleman, Janice Bufford. “Raisin’ Hell on the Border: Drinking, Gambling, Prostitution, and General Mayhem in Fort Smith at the End of the Nineteenth Century.” Journal of the Fort Smith Historical Society 18 (September 1994): 2–13.
Miss Laura's Visitor Center. http://www.fortsmith.org/visitors/welcome-center.aspx (accessed May 11, 2015).
Maranda RadcliffFort Smith, Arkansas
Staff of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
Last Updated 6/11/2015
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