Looking at the gleaming, modern Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul today, it’s difficult to imagine the area’s past. However, a century ago, another monolith stood in its place — one of a decidedly different character.
Buried beneath the museum are the remains of St. Paul’s premier demimonde destination: Nina Clifford’s brothel.
Called an “underworld resort” by the Pioneer Press, it was the city’s most prominent bordello. Open from 1889 to 1929, it became a St. Paul institution. Clifford herself was notorious — and powerful. Reporter Frank Heaberlin, a young man during the brothel’s heyday, recalled, “There were three important people in St. Paul. James J. Hill, Archbishop John Ireland and Nina Clifford.”
Founded by a widow
Clifford first came to St. Paul in the 1880s as a widow from Detroit, having spent the years after her husband’s death caring for her mother. It isn’t known if she was involved in the world of sex work before arriving in Minnesota, but perhaps she saw a demand in the St. Paul market.
Paul Maccabee, author of John Dillinger Slept Here, from the Minnesota Historical Society Press, describes the brothels of the day as “little more than second-story flophouses with mattresses,” no places for discerning clients.
Clifford, meanwhile, built a veritable palace at 147 S. Washington St., costing $12,000 — approximately $327,000 today. The building permit lists the structure’s purpose as “boarding house,” with the possibly joking addition “and seminary.”
Around this time, she dropped her legal name, Hannah Steinbrecher, and adopted the name Nina Clifford, which she pronounced “NINE-ah.”
A well-appointed place
Clifford’s bordello was no dump. Lavish, deep-pile carpet covered the floors and music played constantly in an opulent dance hall. High-class customers were served “all manner of drinks” by sharply dressed servants, recalled Arthur Sundberg, a young man who delivered dresses to the brothel.
Census records bear this out: In 1900, Clifford employed three maids as well as a cook, housekeeper, porter and musician. Additionally, nine women aged 18 to 38 were listed as “boarders.”
What really enchanted Sundberg was an encounter in Clifford’s office, an imposing room with a massive marble fireplace. Seemingly on a whim, she called him to her desk and produced a cigar box. It contained “several hundred unset diamonds … no small ones.”
Wealth and wages
Clifford was known for taking jewelry as payment from cash-strapped customers. She would remove the gems and throw the settings into the Mississippi to prevent identification.
A 1997 archaeological dig, conducted during the Science Museum’s construction, exposed the brothel’s foundation along with a wealth of decadent jetsam: oyster shells, fine glassware, perfume bottles and shards of hand-painted dishware. An opium pipe was even unearthed in what had been the backyard.
However, artifacts from the back of the building show shadows of another life. Workers found pieces of plain dishes and an abundance of medicine bottles. The life of a sex worker could not have been easy.
Still, the profession had its allure. An anonymous sex worker at the time said, “Do you suppose I am going back to earn five or six dollars a week in a factory … when I can earn that amount any night, and often much more?”
The work was stable as well as lucrative. Clifford was under little threat from the law. Though she was regularly “arrested,” such rebukes led to little more than brief court appearances and small fines, not unlike unofficial taxes on the brothel.
St. Paul law enforcement would even cover for Clifford in reports to higher authorities, insisting that the brothel was a proper boarding house. After all, Clifford’s business was a boon to the city. Members of law enforcement and even the upper echelons of St. Paul society were known
to gather there.
The local newspapers regarded “houses of ill fame” with fascination thinly disguised as scorn. Local madams earned a great deal of coverage for their fashions and their exploits.
Clifford was no exception. Given that she left no diaries or letters, most surviving stories of her are from newspapers. These tales often highlighted her generosity. It’s said that each Christmas she would charter a car and personally distribute baskets of food and gifts to impoverished families.
Clifford died of a stroke at approximately age 80 in July 1929, and the brothel closed.
After her death, locals expected to find an enormous fortune, but it turned out she had left little money. It was speculated that the money had gone to an adopted daughter, one of many young women whose education Clifford supposedly financed.
The mafia briefly ran a nightclub in the former brothel, but the building closed permanently in 1934. In need of a site for a new county morgue, the Works Progress Administration demolished the building on October 19, 1937. Said a project administrator, “What death and taxes began on the once-notorious house of Nina Clifford, the WPA is destined to finish.”
Still, Clifford and her bordello refuse to fade into obscurity. Though little of each remains, they have become immortal pieces of St. Paul’s history and lore.
What: Hear stories about Nina Clifford — and the history of St. Paul’s red-light district — in the monthly Ramsey After Dark series
When: Oct. 11, 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
Where: Alexander Ramsey House, St. Paul
Mye Brooks is a public relations intern for the strategic communications department of the Minnesota Historical Society.