A dark, musty walkway with plank floors, mostly covered with torn and stained linoleum, divides dozens of oddly built rooms lining either side of the second-story hallway at 208 W. Main St. in Walla Walla.
They are small rooms, even by today's standards, most built taller than they are wide or deep. They average about 10 feet by 12 feet, with walls close to 15 feet high.
Each room has a single window, but not looking out onto the world. Instead, the windows are set into the adjoining hallway walls. Alongside each is a solid wood door, the only entrance, accompanied by a transom above.
Not all the rooms at 208 W. Main are like this. The ground floor is made up of a number of larger rooms with typical exterior-facing windows, though all have long since been covered. These were rooms dedicated to more acceptable businesses - liquor stores, gambling halls, billiard parlors - and Schwarz's Saloon may have operated on the ground floor, as one photo attests.
As for the second floor, perhaps the reason the windows faced inside was to keep private what the Rose Rooms sold.
It seems fitting that three of Walla Walla's oldest business buildings stand as reminders of the world's oldest profession.
Today, the buildings make up the addresses of 202, 206, 208 and 210 W. Main St., which are owned by Cayuse Vineyards.
The building at the corner of Main and Fourth (202) was built by Daniel Stewart in 1878.
The building farthest from the corner (208 and 210) was built in 1879 by E.B. Whitman and O.P. Lacey.
The center building, or last to be built, which carries the name Barer, though the Barer family didn't own the building until 1958, was built in 1887 by Henry Holmes, according to a collection of historical documents provided by Cayuse Vineyards.
It is unclear when the three buildings became bordellos, but Cayuse General Manager Trevor Dorland is fairly certain all three were originally built for prostitution because of the numbers of small rooms.
Prostitution was legal when Walla Walla was being founded. But the fact is, few records remain of the bordellos, their madams, their prostitutes or their customers.
"That is just our opinion, but there is no one around that can say definitely. But they have been operating (as bordellos) at least since near that time," Dorland said, noting Cayuse hired a researcher to explore the history of the buildings.
What has been known for quite awhile about the bordello industry is that Josephine "Dutch Jo" Wolfe was the first madam to arrive and set up shop in 1860.
Others would follow, and by the 1870s, Walla Walla had a thriving bordello community. In 1871 the trade was a major industry, where license fees of $500 were charged each quarter, according to the research paper.
Even after 1913, when prostitution became a misdemeanor by state law, bordellos continued to operate in Walla Walla, and for some, they operated too long.
In 1952, Look Magazine published an article declaring Walla Walla among the seediest cities in America because of its tolerance of prostitution; it was the beginning of the end for large-scale publicly acknowledged bordellos.
Within a decade the Rose Rooms would turn into what Dorland described as a flophouse for men.
Even to this day, there are still reminders of the battle to shut down the bordello, with "No Girls" painted throughout the three buildings.
Other less-conspicuous reminders include iron beds, worn mattresses and a picture of a woman with a Roaring '20s hairstyle drawn on the wall.
"When we came in here, we found very little. Everything had been picked over by previous owners," Dorland said.
What has survived are several well-documented articles and numerous accounts by witnesses.
"They would just take you to a room, the girl would walk you down there, and you'd go down and do your thing. …" one patron described in his interview with Cayuse's researcher, "… Sometimes they had a couple of 'em sittin' around and you could pick which one you wanted. They were all out-of-towners, professional hookers … Thousand and thousands of men my age that would never say they did, but they did. I'm not ashamed of it, I was a kid. Everybody knew about it."
Perhaps the best physical testament to the prostitution are the small Rose Rooms with windows facing into the hallways.
Crews for Cayuse have already cleared out most of the rooms, leaving behind salvageable building materials, a good number of mattresses and a few iron beds. The only other significant element of the Rose Rooms that remains is one that probably has very little to do with prostitution, but more with personal taste.
The Rose Rooms are not rose-colored but green.
Almost everything is painted in unmatched shades of Antibes green. Even many of the transoms have been sloppily covered in paint. Given that the only light comes from the skylight above, it is an eerie effect, where every step feels as if the intruder is trying to peel off the green paint, pull back the faded wallpaper, tear up the stained floors and peek into Walla Walla's seedier past.
"It sort of reminds me of what built this town. It didn't just sprawl up from nowhere," Dorland said.
Alfred Diaz can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8325.