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Nelson’s last brothel

Updated: Feb 16

Only one building from Nelson’s red light district survives: 601 Lake Street (pictured below in the fall of 2017), now home to Full Circle Family Health, Little Dragon Medicinals, and Starr Healing.

According to Nelson: A Proposal for Urban Heritage Conservation, the legal description is Parcel A of Block 61, Lots 23 and 24, and it was built in 1900. (The BC Assessment Authority puts the date as 1901, but that is usually code for “we don’t know how old it is.”)

I don’t know who built it, but it was a brothel from the get-go; that was around the time city council forced the red light district to move to Lake Street from the east end of Baker Street. Lake Street was also home to Nelson’s Chinatown.

The 1901 census lists five brothels in Nelson, but doesn’t give exact street addresses. Two dozen women worked there. The madams were Jessie North, Emma Green, May Miller, Fata Sousa, and Eliza Mely. The latter two were Japanese born.

The 1911 census shows nine brothels with 43 women. Street addresses were listed this time, so we know Mamie Evans was the madam of 601 Lake. She was 26 and born in Prince Edward Island. Three other women worked there.

The other Lake Street madams were Ethel Dumont (602), Holey (?) Stanley (603), Mary Soto (606), Agnes West (608), Shige Yamamoto (610), Jean Campbell (612), Mabel Johnson (614), and Annie Peterson (615).

Below: An exhibit in the stairwell at the Nelson CP Rail station (now home to the Chamber of Commerce) includes this undated photo of Lake St. which shows 601 Lake Street and the Chinese Masonic Lodge (circled).

The 1913 and 1914 civic directories for Nelson completely ignore Lake Street; the listings skip from Kootenay to Latimer street. Near as I can tell, none of the madams were listed either. This must have been a deliberate omission by the publisher.

On the 1921 census (the most recent available), no brothels are listed. There is a listing for Agnes West on Lake Street, but it’s scratched out. On a separate page, West alone is listed as the proprietor of a “boarding house” with the notation “Additions from closed house cards – transfers from absentee family cards.” I have no idea what that means.

However, according to Kenneth Morrow in Ladies of Easy Virtue in the West Kootenay, p. 30, Mayor J.A. McDonald, who served in 1919-20, tried to banish the brothels. He was not ultimately successful, but perhaps his crusade explains their absence from the census.

Morrow only comments once on 601 Front, on p. 58-59:

Only one former brothel, known as Jenny Green’s place, located at 601 Lake Street and across the street from the other three, was restored. When I sold newspapers there, I remember going up some back stairs to where the girls lived. After restoration it was at first the home of Heritage Hair and is currently The Parlour — a reference to the brothel parlour. 

According to Henri Roberts, who bought 601 Lake in the mid-1980s, Jenny Green, operated the brothel there until about 1945. (A recently-completed statement of significance on the building calls her Jennie McIntyre and says she owned it from 1929-45.) She then sold the building to the Wong family, who ran it as a boarding house, mainly for Chinese Canadians.

In 1949-50, four separate instances were reported in the Nelson Daily News of fines being paid after gambling raids on 601 Lake. In the first two instances, George Wong was fined for keeping a gaming house, in the third instance it was Wong Sing, and in the fourth, Song Lai. Several men found on the premises each time were also fined.

The 1950-51 civic directory listed Mrs. K. Davis at 608 Lake and Mrs. A. De Roy at 610 and 612. (Mrs. De Roy may have been Cleo LeRoy, once regarded as the queen of the madams in Sandon.) The Chinese Freemasons lodge was at 615 and 618 had been converted into the Nelson Hostel for Aged Men. There was no listing for 601, but that’s because it had been renumbered 319 Josephine St. — probably to distance itself from its original use. The owner was listed as C.C. Wong.

The remaining brothels finally closed in 1953. That year 608, 610, and 612 Lake were all listed as vacant. The owner of 319 Josephine was listed as Tom Wong, proprietor of Liberty Foods. In 1955, Loung Mah was listed at 608 Lake and Jay Joe Wing at 612 while 610 was still vacant. The owner of 319 Josephine was listed as T. Wong — although Tom Hong Wong died in Nelson in 1952, age 54. His wife Dan See inherited the building. She was also a director of Liberty Foods.

According to Roberts, Mrs. Wong lived on the main floor, took in laundry, and rented out rooms on the upper storey. Coincidentally, she had two tenants named Wong, who were no relation: Wing Chong Wong died in 1969 at age 79. He had been in Nelson for eight years, retiring as a restaurant cook in 1964. In 1975, Wing Po Wong was also listed as residing at 319 Josephine. He died in Nelson in 1984, age 91. His death registration says he was a labourer and single.

“It was $10 to $15 per month for rent,” said the late Cameron Mah. “But people said ‘You’ve got to watch out because it’s haunted. A lot of ghosts.’”

In 1984, the building’s owner was inexplicably listed in the civic directory as Tom Wong — even though he had been dead for over 30 years. When Dan See Wong took ill, her family in Vancouver came to put the building up for sale. She died in Burnaby in 1988, age 90.

601 Lake Street, 1980s. Al Peterson photo

According to Cam Mah, Tom and Dan See Wong had two sons. One served in the Chinese army and was killed during World War II. The other, Jimmy, was tall and always nattily dressed. He also became a partner in Liberty Foods.

When 319 Josephine, nee 601 Front, went on the market, “It didn’t move. It was vacant for quite a while,” says Roberts, who was then operating a hair salon out of a heritage home on Victoria Street, next to the Royal Canadian Legion. However, another interested buyer appeared, who was going to bulldoze the building for a parking lot. Roberts outbid him and began an ambitious renovation.

“I knew it was going to be a huge project, but I went for it. It was pretty rough. There were doors everywhere. Angular walls, stovepipes running through the hall above the doors into the chimney. There were hot-plate type burners and grease could be scraped off the walls and ceilings. The place would have been a fire trap. It was overwhelming. And filthy. Mice were going through the place.”

601 Lake Street, 1980s, after Henri Roberts bought the place and moved Heritage Hair there. The building is half painted. Al Peterson photo

He acquired the building in early spring. It had power but no heat. The floor plan did not appear to have been altered since it was built: upstairs were six bedrooms, each with a large closet and doorbell, and a small dining room. The lone bathroom was at the rear of the main floor with a clawfoot tub. Later, while digging up the backyard, Roberts discovered where a biffy once stood: “We found face cream jars, a perfume decanter, a wooden lipstick tube — primrose, quite a bright red — a tiara, and a bunch of hair things.”

The Chinese Freemasons, who had been storing things there since their lodge next door burned in 1977, retrieved some items. But an enormous amount remained.

“The place was full,” Roberts says. “Everything was still in it from the previous owner other than her personal effects. There were two living room suites, two dining room suites, six bedroom suites, dishes. Metal bins of rice. The butter was still on the table in the dining area. I went through things I thought I might want to keep, stuffed it all in one room and had a huge yard sale. The rest we filled a truck with and took to the dump.”

Among the stuff he kept: an oak fern table from one of the upstairs bedrooms, and combs and irons found in the dust and dirt of the attic — they became part of a display when Heritage Hair opened. Among the stuff that got pitched: 1950s erotica shoved under cushions and between mattresses. Tame by today’s standards, but Roberts was nevertheless thankful he was wearing gloves.

Roberts removed the fancy woodwork around the doorways and window frames and stored it in the basement as he prepared for the restoration and renovation. He pulled out the lath and plaster down to the shell. Once gutted, fire chief Harry Sommerville and the city building inspector visited to tell him what he needed to do to separate the main floor from the upper storey, which became his living area.

The upstairs had 10-foot ceilings, and downstairs 12-foot. Roberts lowered the latter to accommodate plumbing, and ripped out a closet and inner wall to make a larger living space. The clawfoot tub was moved upstairs and the bathroom turned into a laundry room. A widow’s walk off a second-storey door was deemed unsafe and removed. Other gingerbread work was moved inside and used to embellish a waiting room. A wood furnace was left in the basement, but Roberts installed baseboard heating throughout.

601 Lake Street, later in the 1980s. Al Peterson photo

“I had a carpenter come in and help me. We removed walls and built them where they needed to be and put fire breaks in.” He hired an electrician, plumber and drywaller and “followed along with tarpaper, insulation, vapor barrier.” He did the painting and finishing himself — the exterior was robin’s egg blue with white trim. It took 11 months to complete. He then ran Heritage Hair from the location for a decade.

Having grown up in Nelson, Roberts was vaguely aware of the building’s past, but during the work, he chatted with a man waiting to pick up his wife from the Ministry of Forests office across the street. He remembered the building as a brothel. “He went there on his 21st birthday and claims he never went upstairs. They were drinking there. Alcohol was served and there was a gambling room and parlour. When you walked in, the library was to your left, and the madam’s bedroom to the right.”

Some of Roberts’ customers at his previous location refused to see him once he moved to Lake Street. “I have a feeling their husbands attended the facilities,” he says. However, Roberts felt proud of saving the building. “I know a lot of people shunned it, but it’s my mark in Nelson.” Under his watch, the building’s street address was changed back from 319 Josephine to 601 Lake St.

He once investigated having it added to the city’s heritage register, but never got that far. When the movie Housekeeping was filmed in Nelson in 1986, the film company rented the building and used it to shoot some interior scenes. The exterior also appeared in a couple of shots, including the one seen below, during an imaginary flood.

Roberts sold the building in June 1995 to Sandy Cox, who ran Kurly-Q Unisex Hair Studio with her daughter Joleen Kilpatrick. In a Nelson Daily News story of Nov. 24, 2000, Sandy joked that it was still a cathouse — because she bred Persian cats there. In 2006, it became The Parlour, operated by Brenda Garner. She also saw ghosts: “This place is haunted in a good way, with friendly spirits,” she said in the Daily News of March 20, 2008.

The building looks much the same as when Roberts finished renovating, although it’s since been painted yellow with green trim and a balcony has been added to the front upper storey. Roberts wanted to keep the original windows, so he put secondary panes on the inside, but believes some were later changed, along with some doors. The side entrance off Josephine was damaged when a vehicle struck the building, loosening the door frame.

601 Lake Street in 2001.

Nelson’s most famous madam was Rosie Ayres who, until her death in 1941, operated 618 Lake, also known as the Kansas City House. Architecturally, it was by far the most pretentious brothel in Nelson. It’s the one that became the Nelson Hostel for Aged Men, and then from 1960 to 1971, the Nelson museum. A few photos of it survive.

Touchstones Nelson posted a remarkable photograph on its Flickr feed from the Art Stevens collection, showing four former brothels on the south side of Lake Street, ca. 1961. I think the building on the far right is now the Community First Health Co-op.

As of 1981, the Kansas City House was one of only two former brothels still standing, along with 601 Lake. But Nelson: A Proposal for Urban Heritage Conservation described both as in “poor structural condition.”

Wray Suffredine, who proposed to turn the former into a restaurant called Rosie’s, thought otherwise.

The Calgary Herald did a story about it (seen below) in 1981. The restaurant had not yet opened and I don’t know if it ever did.

Rosie’s was also used for practice by the city band before being torn down around 1984. It’s now the site of Midas Muffler. (Other buildings on former brothel sites include the Nelson Youth Centre and part of the West Arm Plaza.)

That left just 601 Lake. The building is finally poised to be added to the city’s heritage register.

Updated on Feb. 23, 2018 to add the old photo of Lake St.; on Nov. 26, 2018 to add the details of Henri Roberts’ restoration of the building and the Calgary Herald clipping; and on Sept. 17, 2019 to add Al Peterson’s photos; and on Jan. 16, 2020 to add details from the statement of significance; and on June 10, 2020 to add the photo from Housekeeping; and on Aug. 27, 2020 to add the 1976 Nelson Daily News photo; and on Feb. 15, 2024 to add the bit about the 1949-50 gambling raids.

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