Above The Shady Lady, peeking out from behind red velvet curtains sits one of Centralia’s historical worst kept secrets – a brothel. Holly Phelps, owner of The Shady Lady, discovered the space when she first opened her business five years ago.
Before deciding to turn the upstairs space into a museum, Holly considered opening a bed and breakfast, but for several reasons decided to go another direction, opening the Bordello Museum. The goal of opening the museum is to honor Centralia’s past as well as celebrate how far the town has come since it’s early days.
Holly opened the Bordello Museum in October 2015 and visitors are loving it. “What we’re doing isn’t just about my building – it’s about the history here,” Holly says. “It’s so much fun because there is always a lot of blushing and giggling that happens on the tour.”
“The best part of opening this museum has been meeting all the people. It is magical to see visitors reminisce about the era. We even have visitors who are in their eighties and nineties and they share stories they remember about this place from their parents,” Holly shares. “So much joy has been added to my life from meeting so many sweet people and hearing their stories.”
Holly estimates that the building was established in 1915. As with all facts shared at the museum, Holly says, “It’s tricky to say exactly because we want to be as accurate as possible and make sure we have sources to anchor our facts. We use articles from The Chronicle and firsthand accounts, and we like to have multiple sources. But some facts we are still trying to nail down.”
Holly restored and has kept as many original items to the building as possible. “These are the original floors, the original brick work, we even left some of the dust.” She adds that they did add a coat of paint to brighten the space. All of the furniture in the museum is either replicated, donated, or collected from estate sales. A couple of pieces were recovered from an old bordello in Aberdeen.
“We wanted the museum to be a treat. You get to come into the creaky part of the building. Some people tell us that it is a bit creepy,” she mentions. The effect of the thoughtful crafting and careful replication is breathtaking. It is as if you are stepping right into history. The people who were there, and their stories, feel real, instead of lore.
Holly adds, “Visitors really enjoy that the museum is based on history without glorifying prostitution.”
The Bordello Museum is also a testament to the hard work that Centralia was built on. The railways were the lifeline into Centralia and the town was built on the backs of the working man. “Someone once told me that Centralia was built on eggs and timber,” Holly shares with a laugh. “Through the stories shared at the museum is one way for us to give kudos to the working man. It’s amazing how much work goes into keeping a town alive.”
On the flip side, Holly has many stories about women’s hardships – the working girls, who relied on the bordello for survival. “So many of them were just trying to survive. They had no other choice,” Holly shares. “If you think back to the beginning of Centralia, these women didn’t have the right to vote, they had to wear corsets, and for the most part women were at home. They had very little choice back then.”
Throughout the tour, Holly’s enchantment with the era is contagious and is a large part of what brings the museum to life. “You know, it was such a rowdy cowboy time back then. But there was also a mantle of family values and family pride,” she says. “The industry existed but it had a decorum that everything was kept private to preserve family pride.”
The Bordello Museum is located above The Shady Lady and is open on Saturdays. Admission is $2 per person and Holly schedules private tours for groups upon request.
Near the end of my tour, Holly shared one story about two men in their nineties who visited the museum. They shared a surprising, and funny, story about their fathers with Holly. “I think they blushed through the whole tour,” she says. Be sure to ask Holly about their story when you go for your tour.
When building a museum like this, there is a lot of work, research, and some trepidation that goes into it. Holly credits its success to the support of the local community. Holly says, “There is such amazing camaraderie here. Neighbors help each other and lift each other up. People take the time to extend a kind word or a share a story.”
Shady Lady and Bordello Museum
216 N. Tower Ave in Centralia