Washington Court Building

As archaeologists we are expected to know many things.  We are expected to know about the history of people and places, to know about the political influences and social pressures that define a region and its people.  As archaeologists there is an expectation that we place material remains in context; that we provide a narrative.  That we connect.  Historic buildings are an excellent platform for this process, as our structures are reflective of our cultural preferences and practices.  They can serve as a medium by which to examine a multitude of factors.  The Washington court building is no exception to this rule.  Completed in 1890, this building housed one of the most notable brothels in Seattle.  Most Seattleites are familiar with the history of Pioneer Square – how it was destroyed by The Great Seattle Fire of 1889 and then rebuilt from the ashes amidst a massive regarding project.  What many don’t know was that madam Lou Graham was one of the very first to rebuild in Pioneer Square.  Graham was already an accomplished madam by the time the fire destroyed her first brothel, and she used the fire as an opportunity to expand her investments; the Washington Court Building was the realization of a bold move.  The building itself is a beautiful example of a Queen Anne – Richardsonian Romanesque style of architecture, with simple arches set into the broad linear form of the building.  The brick and cast iron structure reflects the new city codes that forbade wooden structures in the wake of the fire. It also reflected Lou Graham’s status as a major player in early Seattle politics.

  Washington Court Building

Graham used her fiscal status to fund politicians who were friendly to her motives; her new building was a brothel to serve the members of Seattle’s elite, it catered to government officials and wealthy residents.  This wasn’t just a brothel; it was a place of business.  A 1905 Baist Map refers to the block where the building is located as the Graham Block, and there are numerous reports of Lou Graham investing in local businesses and public infrastructure like sidewalks after the fire.  One testament to her influence in politics was when she was charged with licentious behavior in 1892; she was acquitted after being defended by two prominent Seattle figures, Superior Court Judge J. T. Ronald, and assistant district attorney, and later Senator, Samuel Piles.  In, perhaps, an ironic turn of events, the politically corrupt infrastructure that she contributed to would come to rob her descendants of her considerable wealth.



After her death in 1903 she attempted to leave her estate to relatives in Germany.  A court ruling actually determined that the German born Graham had never completed the last steps of her application for citizenship and that as her heirs were not citizens of the United States, they had no legal claim to her wealth.  The ensuing scramble for her cash left the Seattle School system considerably richer. A plaque on the side of the building, hilariously, pays tribute to this windfall but makes no mention of the fact that it was never her intention.

Lou Graham Memorial Plaque


Here are some great resources to check out!  The Seattle Department of Neighborhoods is an awesome resource for building info, and so is the public library’s digitized 1905 Baist Map – There are also some great resources on Lou Graham in here as well, what a fascinating character!

1. Seattle.gov – Department of Neighborhoods


2. National Park Service – National Register of Historic Places (PDF – pages 256-257)


3. Lou Graham Gravesite Info – FindAGrave.com


4. Lou Graham & Girls sitting inside the Building

Images of America, Seattle’s Pioneer Square – Book, p.40-41

By Joy Keniston-Longrie, Arcadia Publishing, Chicago, IL 2009

5. Lawyers Reports Annotated 1907 – Lou Graham Estate p. 188

       http://books.google.com/books?              id=JcUKAAAAYAAJ&dq=Lou+Graham+Building+in+Seattle&source=gbs_navlinks_s                   

6. Map of Pioneer Square – Courtesy of Seattle Dept of Neighborhoods (saved)


6. Seattle Public Library – Baist’s 1905 Seattle Map; Pioneer Square


7. Travel Through History – W. Ruth Kozak Blog

       http://travelthroughhistory.blogspot.com/2012/11/exploring-seattles-underground.html  Lou Graham and Girls       



2 thoughts on “Washington Court Building

  1. What a fascinating story, Amber! This building truly highlights the worth of exploring the history of brothels at a deeper level. They were not simply places of ill-repute as we might assume, but places of social interaction that significantly shaped the trajectory of emerging cities such as Seattle.

    I’m interested, how did the Seattle school system emerge from the scramble with her wealth? Besides not recognizing her intentions, how do you think the city has approached the history of this building?

    • It is a great story – the colorful accounts Lou Graham and how her brothel contributed to the foundation of early Seattle is great stuff! The interplay of politics and race as it played out in legislation regarding prostitution in Seattle around the turn of the century is also a fantastic topic, and is most definitely worth a read. At Graham’s brothel, elected officials didn’t pay for brothel services (according to local legend) – and if you look at the early maps she was kitty-corner to the largest church at the time, right next to the fire station, and just a couples of blocks away from city hall. She had prime real estate and was excellently connected; her mansion, which was torn down in the 80s, was in an excellent part of town.

      As far as the legal matter goes – I’m guessing that the legal precedent at the time was that it went to the school district. The courts specified in their response that the only real legal question in the proceeding was whether the funds should go to the state or county school system, but I couldn’t find the actual legal statute to cite. They stated it in the legal proceeding as though it was a matter of general fact, however, so I would say it’s a safe bet to assume that was the case. Today the city of Seattle utilizes her brothel as a sort of structural propaganda. Her story contributes to the eclectic, wild-west, sort of vibe that Pioneer Square seeks to embrace. The plaque on the side of the building, which now houses the Union Gospel Mission among other things, provides a “hooker with a heart of gold” sort of a narrative that caters to the image that Pioneer Square seeks to embody; they are exploitative of her memory to serve their current agenda.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *