Parked behind an iron fence in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods is a red antique
An Albuquerque Trolley car looms over the dwelling to its west.
The historical piece of machinery has come to the right place to retire. It sits next to a building with more than its share of colorful history. The Wells Park property located near 12th Street and Bellamah Ave. NW is now the Painted Lady Bed & Brew. But before it served as a place for a peaceful getaway, it was home to a much racier operation – a brothel.
Co-owner and bed and brew operator Jesse Herron purchased the property in 2014 from the family who had owned it for more than a century, and they have shared its history with him. It was always his intention, he said, to honor and embrace the property’s past and he’s never shied away from its brothel status.
That brings us to its name.
Painted lady can refer to the common butterfly Vanessa cardui, which has black and orange markings.
In the ’70s, the name became associated with Victorian and Edwardian houses that were repainted in three or more colors in an effort to highlight their architectural details.
But the painted lady in this column refers to the third meaning – a prostitute.
“The phrase was used for prostitutes in the 1800s because proper women did not wear makeup,” Herron said. “But I also like that it’s the name of a butterfly. It’s symbolic of shedding your former self and becoming something different. Like this place.”
The euphemism for disreputable women first made its appearance in 1699 according to Merriam-Webster. It was an often-used phrase in the American West, where brothels and the women who worked there were just as common as whiskey, guns and the men who wanted all three.
Albuquerque was no exception.
Prostitution was legal here from 1880 to 1914 and the city had its fair share of brothels. Women had few ways to support themselves, sometimes leaving them with no choice but to exchange sex for money. In the introduction to her book, “Wicked Women of New Mexico” author Donna Blake Birchell talks about the life women faced in the West.
“This was certainly a man’s world, and women, although welcome due to the rarity of their sex in the West, were treated as little more than property to be traded or to be dealt with accordingly. …Women, as the objects of a man’s sex drive, were powerful in a harsh region of the country. New Mexico is not for the weak; you must have a backbone, conviction and stubbornness to survive the elements, something true even today.”
Well-known madams in New Mexico history include Madam Millie of Silver City who turned to prostitution to support her ill sister after their parents died during the 1918 flu pandemic; Sadie Orchard of Hillsboro; and Albuquerque brothel owner and shrewd businesswoman Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” McGrath. Her establishment, the Vine Cottage (a nod to a wine room) was a clapboard-style house located on Copper Ave. and Third Street, and had five parlors and five bedrooms. McGrath tried to run a legitimate business, even suing those who did not pay their debts, and requiring her girls to read books such as “Stoddard’s American Intellectual Arithmetic,” “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and “The Parts of Speech and How to Use Them” so they could converse with their clients.
The arrival of the railroad to Albuquerque in 1880 meant an acceleration of growth and a rise of numerous industries, including lumberyards. The American Lumber Company set up a sawmill directly across the street from Herron’s property in the early 20th century, making the structure an ideal place to set up a brothel. The brothel contained the private parlors and rooms. Each room was about the size of a small bedroom and had a door facing the street, allowing the women to stand outside, visible to the working men across the street.
Herron said life for the women at the brothel was probably not very easy. The brothel was considered a “crib,” meaning women worked out of tiny rooms, got paid very little and could see up to 50 men each day. Unlike the parlors that were found in Downtown’s Red Light District and patronized by the city’s prominent men, crib clients were usually working-class men with little money.
The building first appeared on insurance maps in 1900.
Old photos show that the Swastika Saloon sat at the western end of the structure and served as entrance to the rectangular building. The saloon – whose name was chosen well before the Nazis co-opted the peaceful religious symbol and forever linked it to hate and death – characterized itself as a dance hall with a wine room. Back then wine rooms were not for tasting or serving wine. They were code for “we sell sex here.”
According the family, the saloon, a “place of bad repute,” was operated by Cesario “Sario” Gonzales, who had fled Spain for the New Mexico Territory after being accused of witchcraft. The actual opening date of the saloon and its “wine room” is not known, but Gonzales had a title to the property as far back as 1899.
Long gone is the saloon, the brothel and its painted ladies. The saloon was a grocery store for many years and the “cribs” were converted to apartments.
Today the place has a tranquil feeling. Each apartment faces a courtyard featuring trees, plants, flowers and seating. The bedrooms still have a back door facing the street but the property is now lined with a wooden fence, offering privacy.
Herron lives on-site in one of the apartments and offers a one- and a two-bedroom apartment for nightly lodging. Guests are offered two free local beers during Hoppy Hour, which starts promptly at 5:05 p.m. every day.
The decommissioned trolley car will soon become a taproom for guests of The Painted Lady Bed & Brew – a place to drink in not only local craft beer but local history.
Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”