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Erotic Archaeology.

Rooms that were left sealed and undisturbed for years in a derelict Butte, Montana, house have yielded a glimpse into daily lives otherwise ignored, denied, and certainly never preserved. That's because the broken-down Victorian house that contained the time-capsule chambers was once America's oldest active brothel, the Dumas.

It did regular business with the area's copper miners from 1890 until 1982. A reform sheriff evicted the town's last madam as the last mine was closing, but even on the day she locked the Dumas' door behind her, those sealed rooms hadn't been opened in decades.

Workmen who finally broke through the doors found the hastily abandoned detritus of boomtown whoredom. The floors were littered with old cigarette packs and decks of playing cards, leftovers of the boredom that hung over a brothel waiting for the mine whistle to sound. There were liquor bottles to suggest the alcoholism of the prostitutes, as well as of their customers. There were scattered lipsticks, chamber pots, an old jar of Vaseline. There was a bed sinking through the floorboards, a 1911 vibrator, a 1930s postcard encouraging safe sex.

But there was most of all the air of accident. A prostitute's past is evanescent, quick to disperse, gone with the morning. It is history of no seeming interest; it is, literally, pornography, a term that began its life as "writing about prostitutes."

Enter Norma Jean Almodovar. Almodovar's resume is full of surprises. The 49-year-old Montanan was once a Los Angeles cop. She quit to become an upscale Beverly Hills prostitute (she says she wanted to make "an honest living"); became head of the L.A. chapter of COYOTE, the prostitutes' rights organization; and ran for lieutenant governor of California on the Libertarian ticket (she got 90,000 votes). Now she's founded a museum in Butte.

Almodovar and a local businessman named Rudy Giecek have taken the remains of the Dumas and restored the place to gilt shamelessness. It's a museum now, complete with player piano, an evocation that stands in for San Francisco's Barbary Coast, Washington's Hooker's Brigade, New Orleans' Storyville, and all the other vanished districts of mixed shame and pleasure, ragtime and jazz.

Some of the brothel's now-aged former customers have applauded its rebirth. So has the local paper. The Chamber of Commerce, hoping for tourist bookings, has welcomed it. But there's a new Butte that isn't happy about the new Dumas. A group calling itself Citizens to Protect Our Youth is concerned that Butte's daughters will be tempted to become whores. As they worried in a public protest letter, "They may say, 'Let's give it a try!'"

Though Almodovar seems to like shocking people by telling them that "I loved being a whore," the Dumas for her is about the remembrance of all of Butte's heritage. "If the prostitutes are forgotten, you may as well forget the miners, too," she told Civilization magazine. "They go hand in hand."

But Time reports that the Dumas is already in serious financial trouble. Last summer, hoping to get some help from active prostitutes, Almodovar invited them to town. But a prostitute's life eschews its own past. Only one showed up.
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Title Annotation:sealed rooms in Montana brothel opened as museum
Author:Freund, Charles Paul
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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