The decked-out bordello once housed high-end soiled doves.
Legend has it the popular tune “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” is a reference to Myers Avenue, at the heart of the red-light district in Cripple Creek, Colo.—the “Greatest Gold Camp on Earth,” as it came to be known. The legend certainly fit. In the 1890s Myers was perhaps the hottest street in the West. Parlor houses, or bordellos, operated on Myers 24/7, catering to freespending miners with free time. Children were banned from the district, and the good women of Cripple Creek tried not to mention that street or its “gentlemen’s entertainment” establishments, such as Pearl DeVere’s Old Homestead.
DeVere moved to Cripple Creek from Denver during the economic Panic of 1893, when the capital city was in dire financial straits, and the gold mining camp was full of promise. Described as beautiful and strong in stature (no known photos exist), the 31-year-old madam had a head for business. She encouraged her girls to wear fine clothing and paid them well enough to afford it, though their shopping outings on Bennett Avenue caused certain citizens to shudder. DeVere herself took daily rides about town, either sidesaddle in elegant attire, derby hat cocked to one side, or in her fancy single-seated phaeton, which sported red wheels and was pulled by two black horses. Generosity was another DeVere hallmark, as Pearl donated to various charities even when her actual presence was unwelcome.
In April 1896 DeVere lost her parlor house to a fire that devastated much of Cripple Creek, but she rebuilt in brick, decorating the interior with lace curtains, velvet draperies and fine furniture imported from Europe. Large fireplaces and coal stoves heated the house on cold Cripple Creek nights, while crystal gaslights and electric chandeliers provided good lighting when desired. The luxury of running water and two bathrooms promoted good hygiene. Hand-painted French wallpaper, at a cost of $134 a roll, gleamed throughout, and the finest handmade hardwood tables graced the parlor and the entertainment room. There was a telephone and even an intercom system. Guests needed references as well as money (reportedly up to $250 a night) to make themselves at home in the Old Homestead.
Madam DeVere’s showcase parlor house grew to legendary status in Colorado before passing into private ownership. In 1958 it became a brothel museum, one of only three such institutions nationwide. The Old Homestead House, with its Victorian decor intact, is the oldest. To tour this historical brothel is to step back into the working girls’ world of a 19th-century mining town.
Don’t look for artifacts in glass cases; this museum is indeed a house. The parlor in which the girls greeted guests retains the original French wallpaper, the original diamond dust mirror, alcohol lamps and an imported slipper chair with an intricate red needlepoint design. Mannequins pose throughout, clad in everything from delicate silk dresses to evening gowns. A portiere—a popular decorative curtain—divides the parlor from the music room.
The entertainment room features a turn-of-the-century gaming table and an 18th-century étagère display shelf lined with period bottles and glass containers. The crystal chandelier was a gift from an admiring patron to popular working girl Lola Livingston. A hand-blown glass chandelier in the dining room was a gift to DeVere, while the silver tea service was a gift to HazelVernon, Pearl’s successor and Cripple Creek’s longest reigning madam.
On the upstairs landing is a window through which a paying guest could peer into a reviewing room to select his preferred girl. Flanking the long hallway are five bedrooms, each now named for a well-known local soiled dove. Inside are beds made of pine, walnut and chestnut. Hand-painted silk screens and full-length mirrors with tigerwood frames brighten up the rooms. At the end of the hall is the Pearl DeVere Room, where the madam died at age 36 on June 5, 1897, from what the coroner ruled was an“accidental overdose” of morphine. But her spirit lives on. “You can just feel it,” says museum curator Charlotte Bumgarner.
The Old Homestead House Museum is at 353 Myers Ave. For more information call 719-689-3090.
Author Linda Wommack is a distant relative of Robert Miller Womack, the discoverer of gold at Cripple Creek.
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.