Former Brothel Now a Visitor's Center

Socal Club Offers a Unique Welcome

Miss Laura'sCredit: City of Fort Smith Convention and Visitor's BureauNot many cities would be proud of the fact that a former house of ill repute was not only within their city limits, but also on the National Register of Historic Places. But Fort Smith Arkansas is not only proud of this fact; they moved their visitor’s center into the building.

Miss Laura’s Social Club is the only remaining building from an era when Fort Smith was part of a west that was Truly Wild. During that time bordellos such as Miss Laura’s were legal. The health department even regulated the business by requiring that the madam of the house have each of her girls get a clean bill of health from a doctor periodically to ply their trade.

These houses of ill repute were pushed to the fringes of society in a kind of red light district known as bordello row. In Fort Smith these bordellos formed a row of fancy homes along Front Street near the river and across the railroad tracks from the rest of the city. Due to their location, in polite society they were dubbed “river front hotels,” or more simply as “the row.”

Miss Laura’s was established in 1904 by a prostitute named Laura Ziegler, who used her connections as the manager of a local brothel to secure a $3,000 loan from a local bank. She then financed a green, two-story clapboard Victorian mansion with a mansard roof, wrought iron trim and oeil-de-boeuf (eye of ox) windows, and hung out her shingle.

The madam’s girls charged $3 per transaction. The upscale mansion and high price per transaction (the other brothels then charged $1 per transaction) gave Miss Laura’s a certain cachet in Fort Smith.  Local legend states that the city’s mayor attended the establishment’s grand opening, and that prominent citizens were given V.I.P tokens that allowed them to visit without having to pay a transaction fee.

In addition to Miss Laura’s, five other houses of ill repute were located in the red light district. Among these establishments was also a home run by Pearl Starr, daughter of the famous outlaw and bandit queen Belle Starr. According to local history, Pearl’s house of ill repute had a Tiffany window that portrayed a string of pearls in the shape of a star. Miss Starr lit the window from behind with a red light to show gentlemen callers that her girls were available.

In 1910, Miss Laura’s barely escaped a fire when two other buildings on bordello row burned down. That night is known in local history as “The night of the lingerie parade,” after many of the girls and their customers ran into the streets in their underclothes to escape the fires. Miss Laura sold her brothel a year later to one of her girls, Miss Bertha Dean.  The brothel continued to run until Miss Bertha passed away in 1948.

Over the years, the “Hello Bordello” has managed to survive near demolition and even acts of God. The building was barely saved from being torn down in 1973 when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2007, a tornado that demolished large portions of the Fort Smith Riverfront took off the building’s roof and ruined many of its interiors.

Today Miss Laura’s is restored to its former glory. Walk inside and you will find red velvet drapes and brass fittings. The names of several of the girls including “Kitty” and “Lanna” who lived there are etched into glass panes in the transoms of the doorways. Visitor’s Center employees dress the part, posing as Miss Laura and giving visitors tantalizing glimpses into the Fort Smith that was.

Miss Laura’s is open at 2 North “B” street in Fort Smith. The hours of operation are 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. Sunday