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.
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.
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
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